Maundy Thursday: Love on the move
A sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT on Maundy Thursday 2013.
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. (Ex 12:11)
As we dive deeply into the great mystery and awe of these Three Holy Days, we begin with a reminder of how it all started. For the precursor of this night includes not just a final meal among friends in a room in old Jerusalem, but a hastily eaten meal in ancient Egypt. The biblical chronology varies, of course, so whether or not the Last Supper is a Passover meal depends on which account you read. In any case, the association between these three days and on our forebearers’ exodus cannot be missed.
By the time Exodus was written, the Hebrew word pesach was so well known it required no explanation. It meant not just “passing over” as we often think today, but something even more ancient, “compassion.” This is not only the passover of the Lord, but the compassion of the Lord. The deliverance of God’s people comes by way of God’s compassion for them.
What captivates me about this association is the commandment to eat in haste. To be ready to move. The image gets me because, at first glance, it seems to foreign to what we are doing here tonight. These liturgies are lengthy, complicated affairs. Before we gathered here tonight, diagrams were drawn, manuals were written, and rehearsals were held.
But there is a way in which what we are doing has everything to do with the commandment to eat in haste. Imagine, if you will, the scene for those in ancient Egypt. Knowing as they do, that they are about to be rescued and delivered, knowing that something wonderful but also perhaps terrifying is around the corner, knowing all this — they eat a meal. God tells them what to eat, how to cook it, and makes sure they are ready for their deliverance.
Eating this way, in haste, is not like a thoughtless fast food meal. Quite the opposite. To eat a feast as if one is on the move is to take nothing for granted. It is to eat every bit with purpose, savoring every taste. This is how we are meant to gather tonight. We are to do everything here with purpose, with intention, savoring every sight, word, smell, touch, and taste. We are on the move, spiritually if not physically.
Of course, the central motif of this night’s liturgy is not found in Exodus, but rather in the Gospel. Later in John, Jesus says to love one another as he has loved us. Here he simply shows us his intention and commands us to do likewise. In a few minutes, the choir will sing a stunning anthem that gets right to the core of everything we are doing here:
Where charity and love abide, God is there. The love of Christ has gathered us together. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us fear and love the living God. And let us love one another with a sincere heart.
This new commandment — misunderstood now as much as then — to care for one another as Christ has cared for us is a stretch. I’ve heard preachers say that what Jesus proposed was somehow normal for the time, but Peter’s reaction proves otherwise. Indeed, Peter seeking to refuse his master is not a lack of faith, but rather an excess of reason. It just didn’t make sense that night. The disciples knew their leader was under enormous pressure, and of course they would have wanted to take care of him, rather than the reverse.
Washing feet doesn’t make much sense here either. Doing this breaks down about a hundred different walls that we like to keep firmly in place. Touching a stranger’s feet, or perhaps worse, allowing someone else to care for you in this publicly intimate way, doesn’t make much sense. And that’s exactly why we should do it. To take part in the washing of feet, you have to be willing to be on the move. This strange act requires us to go beyond what make sense or what feels comfortable.
You see, I am quite sure Jesus knew just what he was doing. You don’t even have to be omniscient to know that commanding people to love one another will provoke awkwardness. Choosing an awkward symbol of an awkward thing is, well, spot on.
This way of loving others is also beautiful, of course. How can this be? We know that loving people often makes no sense. It is, literally, irrational, to love another person, especially a stranger. The love we are commanded to share — loving one another as Christ loves us — is complete; it is sacrificial; it is offered without regard to merit or consequence.
Christian love is offered to friends and strangers. It takes us away from what is comfortable, far beyond what feels familiar. But aren’t life’s most profound moments found in the tender care of another? Aren’t the most holy moments of this early pilgrimage found in loving another and in loving God? Isn’t every transforming experience one that has caused us to go somewhere, to be on the move?
Tonight we enact this symbol of extravagant, senseless love precisely to jar us out of reality. We are meant to do something that makes no sense. We are all asked to be on the move. And if we are going to succeed in this Christlike act — now or any other time in our lives — we’ll need God’s compassion and grace.
As we embark on the symbolically rich and theologically complex journey of the Three Holy Days, I hope we will manage to taste, to love, to pray, to hear, to sing — I hope we will manage to do all these things with the same intensity and purpose that God commanded for our forebearers in ancient Egypt. To follow Jesus is to go on an epic journey. To follow Jesus means that we will have an uncertain, unsafe, unreasonable future. We’d better savor every bit–every act of love, every prayer, every word, every song. We have to be ready to be on the move.
Our liturgy ends with one more startling act. For those of us who spend much time in a church, it is perhaps even disturbing. As our liturgy continues, the Blessed Sacrament will be removed with great solemnity to a place for prayer. Then all the adornments and tools of our worship will be removed, stripped away. The Altar itself will be scrubbed clean. And the Tabernacle door will be left wide open. Christ will no longer be present here as he usually dwells here. An open door, an empty box, an extinguished candle. These will be the signs that all is not well, that all is not as it usually is. Startling.
It’s one last way in which this ancient ritual of the church gives us a slap. Christ in his presence here will move, and this is done with bold insistence that we all gird ourselves to move as well. We are meant to notice that the world that we love, so familiar, so comfortable, so safe, is not OK. God wants us to be on the move.
The spiritual forebearers of this parish, in the Oxford Movement, stunned the church in their day by doing all the things that we are here accustomed to — lighting candles, wearing vestments, using ancient gestures, burning incense, venerating the Sacrament — and awakened a new spirit in the church and beyond. They knew that as they worshiped Christ in a tabernacle, they were meant to serve Christ in the most vulnerable people of the world beyond the stained glass. Lest we think we don’t need to do that — to look for Christ outside the familiar and comfortable realm — he is tonight removed from his usual place, as we are to leave our usual place.
We Christians are meant to be on the move. Spiritually, we have places to go. Physically, we have a world with which to share Christ’s love.
Cyril of Alexandria says that Christians have a “duty not to have, as it were, their loins ungirt and loose but to be ready cheerfully to undertake whatever labors become the saints; and to hasten besides with alacrity wherever the law of God leads them. And for this reason, Christ very appropriately made them wear the garb of travelers.”
My friends in Christ, our deliverance is at hand. The compassion of God is in our midst. Let us hasten to practice what Christ has commanded us to do. And let us be ready to go where God is calling us.