Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Last year during Holy Week, I posted the Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the day each day. Though you’d never know it from my recent posts (or lack therefore of), Holy Week is my favorite time of the church calendar. No matter what one believes to be at the heart of Christianity – liberation, salvation, or something else – Christ’s Resurrection and the events leading up to it are the most meaningful events in all of Scripture. Christmas might be the most salient of Christian holidays, but Holy Week is the most sacred. Done right, Lent and Holy Week are times for reflection on many things – our personal lives, our personal faiths, temptation, the true meanings and applications of these powerful Bible stories, and more. I sadly admit that this year, I haven’t done Lent or Holy Week right. Finals, Spring Break, a very brief Epiphany season, and perhaps even a touch of apathy have held me back – but it certainly hasn’t held the Spirit back. Tonight’s Maundy Thursday service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church here in Hanover, New Hampshire was a surprisingly deep and reverent experience.

Maundy Thursday is, of course, the observation of the Last Supper: the foot washing service. Fr. Guy began his sermon by talking about nursing. Prior to Florence Nightingale, he said, nursing was seen as a dirty profession left only to the lowest of people (which did not exactly lead to state-of-the-art health care facilities). This was because of the notion that touch – human touch – was a revolting thing. As a result, Nightingale’s original assistants were all former prostitutes – the only women willing to touch other bodies, particularly men. We continue to hold loosely to this uptight Euro-American notion today. No wonder, then, that we’re so darn skittish about washing feet, or having our feet washed.

Fr. Guy did the feet washing a bit differently than most of us were used to. The four washers took a holistic approach, washing the whole foot with soap, toweling it off thoroughly, and kissing it, then repeating with the other foot. Though Fr. Guy’s method of washing feet does sound intimidating, it was actually very powerful. I can’t explain just why, but I felt moved as I sat there, watching and feeling him wash my feet and listening to the choir slowly sing “Just As I Am” (a favorite of mine).

As you probably guessed, fewer people had their feet washed even than normal, but I didn’t feel as if I had much of a choice. Though the washing of the feet isn’t technically a Sacrament, it sure seems like one. Though we may not observe it on a weekly basis, it was as central to the Last Supper story as the actual bread and wine. This symbolic act of servant leadership may not be listed in the catechism, but it certainly fits the definition of a Sacrament: an outward sign of God’s inward grace. I see it, then, as a vital extension of Communion, and to sit it out would be no different (for me) than sitting out baptism or confirmation.

I returned to my pew in the back, something stirring inside me, moved almost to tears. The service proceeded with the Eucharist (the last before the Easter Vigil), the stripping of the altar, the singing of Psalm 22, and the dimming of the lights. There was a lot going on, providing the opportunity for much reflection – on the Sacraments, the meaning of Communion, the abandonment of Christ, the power of the various Eucharistic Prayers, prayer, the power of personal relationships with God, deep abiding gratitude, servant leadership, servant friendship, prostitution, Native American spirituality, and more.

I saw one renowned retired professor in the congregation who stopped attending St. Thomas long ago. He had to leave for personal reasons, but misses St. Thomas and still considers it home. (Though the personal reasons are past, he now has a loyalty to the people at his new church.) I mention this because he wasn’t just in the congregation – he was the lone usher, walking the aisles at Communion, dimming the lights, and distributing leaflets. To come home after so long, if only for a spell, and be so instantly immersed seems like a very special thing. It must have been a blessed evening for him, too.

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