Reflection on Holy Thursday
Introduction by the Rev. Martin Lally CoL
This gathering is about two very important aspects of our lives: gift and community. Holy Thursday celebrates the event of Jesus gathering in community with his closest friends to celebrate friendship and to say farewell to those he loved so deeply. As a way of saying goodbye Jesus gave a parting gift. This gift is what continues to bind us together as friends of Jesus. In this liturgy we reflect on what the gift is, who gives the gift, how the gift is given and why the gift is given.
The what of the gift that Jesus gives to the community is the gift of presence, his own presence. That presence is given in food and drink, bread and wine, what we call Eucharist, but it is also in persons, in those with whom we share life and love. The who of the gift is the one who gives it — Jesus, the redeemer, the physical revelation of the God who created all things. The how of the gift is the miracle of transformation because it is only with the eyes of faith that we can recognize bread and wine, humans blessed and broken, neighbors near and far, earth and sky, as the presence of creator and redeemer. And the why of this gift is love, complete, total, unconditional and ever present, the Spirit that binds Creator and Redeemer as One. This gift is the Body of Christ (to use JoAnn’s phrase), the Body of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, appearing in bread and wine, humans broken and blessed, creation all around us, assured for us for all time as the Body of God, experienced in our community, in our friendship and in our service to one another. This makes us a community like the community Jesus gathered together at the Last Supper that we remember here and now.
This celebration invites reflection and JoAnn Gates has graciously agreed to share her reflections with us. JoAnn…
Writing from his prison cell on a Christmas Eve, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the following to his niece and her husband: “Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try to find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with one another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.”
Our circumstances are very different than Bonhoeffer’s, but oh — can’t we name the countless gaps that have been both created and exposed by the current coronavirus pandemic? Every person the world over is experiencing some sort of gap, something from which they are separated —like a classroom or a paycheck, or someone from whom they are apart — like a sick child, or a community of sisters. For many, the gap in which they now live is more like an abyss.
And last night, everywhere, the Passover Seder was upended for our Jewish sisters and brothers. And on this night, Holy Thursday, the gap is a blatant one. Those who do gather will mostly do so remotely. Moreover, we will recall but not partake in the sharing of Communion and the washing of feet. Fallen into the gap along with so much else are the two most sublime rituals / gifts given to us by Jesus.
Bonhoeffer’s experience was that when we are separated from what we love, leaving the gap unfilled actually keeps alive our communion with one another. If there is any truth in that, then how might that be evidenced within the gaps of this Holy Thursday celebration? Where is the consolation of which he speaks?
I want to suggest two possible ways in which the absence of those cherished rituals on this Holy Thursday evening may help us to keep them alive, even as we feel their loss.
Possibility #1. The models of bread-breaking and foot-washing were essentially given to the disciples for what was to be the gap, the gulf, even, upon the death of Jesus. He knew the authorities were coming for him, knew that his disciples would be lost without him…perhaps wondered if they would remember anything he had taught them. So, he used a ritual familiar to everyone and basically said, “Now, pay attention; you’ve asked about The Way … this is The Way: think of this bread as my body, which I will let be broken and freely given for others. Remember this.”
And a little later during the meal he got up and said, essentially, “Here is another image to remind you of what God’s Way looks like: it looks like God bending toward us … it looks like a king serving others … it looks like the head of the household doing the servant’s work. Remember this.” The breaking of bread and the washing of feet were the culminating images describing how Jesus had lived, and visual reminders for how his followers were to carry on without him. While this evening’s celebration without the beloved rituals carries a palpable loss for us, their deepest truth remains unchanged and perhaps even more evident: We are to live what the rituals convey; they are only fulfilled through our living.
Possibility #2. Many of you may be familiar with Sallie McFague, a feminist theologian who was known for her work with metaphor… as lying at the heart of how humans try to speak about or relate to God. She applied this in particular to ecological issues, and wrote extensively on care for the earth as if it were God’s “body.” It’s not such a stretch, really, to imagine the Universe as God’s body. In the first-century, Symeon the New Theologian wrote, “When we love Christ, we wake up in Christ’s body, where all our body, all over … is realized in joy as [Christ].” If the Universe were, metaphorically, the body of God, how might that deepen our relationship with it? We would know it, I think, as inherently sacred … we would give it our utmost attention and care …we would not pollute or burn or otherwise destroy such a body.
In the midst of this global pandemic, has it ever been clearer to us that this world is profoundly interconnected and interdependent? that what affects one of us affects all of us? That denuding the land and burning the Amazon, for example, destroys the universal ventilator on which we are all dependent? Indigenous peoples and biologists, mystics and physicists have not been wrong: What befalls the earth befalls everything that lives on the earth.
So, in this gap, separated from those we love, what if we would open to the image of Earth as the body of God? And just as we know ourselves called to wash the feet of one another, might we know that as intimately connected to our care for Earth? Now, but not only now, when we are socially distanced from every human body, could we consider that caring for Earth herself is washing the feet of one another? is caring for the body of God?
Next week, or next year, or years from now, when we reminisce about the many gaps we experienced during the spring and the Triduum of 2020, may it also be said that the absence of the beautiful rituals helped preserve our communion with one another… helped us know ourselves more fully as part of the universal body of God. And may we remember this as the year we re-avowed, “These examples given to us by Jesus? We will fulfill them in our living.”