Last night, Maundy Thursday, we celebrated the institution of the Eucharist, or Communion, by Jesus at the "Last Supper:" his Passover meal with the disciples. The Gospel of John, unlike the other accounts of that night, tell us that Jesus, knowing he was about to die and wanting to make symbolic, even startling gestures that the disciples would remember, took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around himself, filled a basin with water, and began washing the disciples' feet. During the Maundy Thursday liturgy, the priests do this same thing: they remove their elaborate outer robes, and taking towels and basins of water, wash the feet of the parishioners who come forward. Fr. Richard Rohr explains the symbolism this way:
Perhaps John realized that after seventy years, the other Gospels had been read. He wanted to give a theology of the Eucharist that revealed the meaning behind the breaking of the bread. He made it into an active ritual of servanthood and solidarity, instead of the priestly cult that it has largely become.
After the service, some of the bread and wine is reserved for communion today, Good Friday, which sets it apart from every other day of the year. And then the lights are dimmed and the altar stripped. In our church, a small side chapel has been made into a "garden", to remind us of Gethsemanii, where Jesus prayed all night that he might be spared, knowing he would be betrayed by one of his followers. There are green plants, and many candles, and people keep a vigil all night long. Every time Jesus returned to his disciples, during that long night, he found them asleep and he sadly rebukedthem, saying, "Could you not stay awake with me one hour?" Later, when he had been arrested and taken away, they all deserted him and fled.
I always leave Maundy Thursday feeling disturbed, sorry, and wondering about our shared human weaknesses, and my own. What are the times in my life when I've deserted the people I love most? How have I betrayed my friends, my beliefs, my better self? How am I still doing that?
Good Friday, today, is somehow easier for me to take, easier to understand, even with its focus on grief and suffering, which remind us of our wn griefs. It recounts the trial, public execution, and death of an innocent person, something we have seen again and again in our world. Someone else did that, I can tell myself, as I always do when I read the papers or see the latest atrocity. I'm not directly responsible. It seems like I can always convince myself that there is a "they" who is more guilty than I am.
The Maundy Thursday questions, for me, are much harder; I cannot wriggle free.