Sermon Preached on Maundy Thursday
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Evanston
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Evanston
Bread, wine, water, community – all of them tangible symbols of the powerful presence of God. We can taste and smell the bread and the wine. We can see and hear one another as we gather. And we can feel the cool water as it is poured over our the naked flesh of our feet or hands. This community, this bread, this wine, this time set apart - signs of God’s presence with us. They are what the Eastern Church would refer to as kataphatic expressions of God. God revealed through the positive, the present, the sense-able. This focus on the positive, the tangible, has been an historical landmark of the Western Church. Whether or not you and I will ever understand how the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ makes little difference in our ability to share the bread and the wine together at this and every other celebration of the Eucharist. Because the bread and the wine are tangible, they are real. As the psalmist wrote, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are they who trust in him!” We can taste and see the bread and the wine. And the context in which we share the bread and the wine – in companionship with one another – is a reminder that being a Christian means being in community. And eating the bread and drinking the wine together provide us with sensual connectors to the story of our salvation – the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, his violent death on a cross, and his miraculous resurrection – all to liberate us from the bondage of sin.
Our salvation history has some notable parallels to the Jewish story of salvation which Jews around the world commemorate with a Passover Seder. The Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving for the Exodus – the deliverance from bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt. And, tonight, we have intentionally drawn some parallels to the Seder in our service. We have already lit the Yom Tov – the holiday – candles. The candles are traditionally lit by the mother of the household as she recites the holiday prayer for light – “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Festival lights.”
In addition, because the Seder meal is understood as one of the primary means of passing on the story of salvation from parent to child, it is the youngest child’s privilege to ask the Mah Nishtanah – the four questions – of which we heard one tonight, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Another parallel will occur when we receive the offering of bread and wine. We will recite a traditional Jewish blessing or berekah over the bread and the wine to sanctify the holiday.
But here the parallels must end, because it is not the Jewish story of salvation that we remember on this Thursday in Holy Week. No, our Maundy Thursday rituals take a very different turn. For what we remember this night is not only our salvation, but also the last time Jesus was with his friends for their celebration of the Passover Seder, a night where they shared what would be their final meal together and where Jesus gave his friends one final commandment – the mandatum from which we get the word Maundy – the commandment to love one another “just as I have loved you.”
Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and afterwards said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” “Just as I have loved you.” Foot washing is an act of service. And, as teacher and Lord, Jesus should not have been washing the feet of his students, his disciples. But, like so many aspects of Jesus’ life, this is a counter-cultural action in which the unique nature of the community is demonstrated. For this community of disciples is to be based on collaboration rather than competition; on accountability, rather than blame; on compromise, rather than control; on truth-telling rather than concealment; on power with rather than power over, on love rather than fear. The unique nature of this community is a high calling and one which we continue to live in to imperfectly. But that imperfection in no way negates Jesus’ intention for us. And this focus on leading through loving service is the first thematic difference from the Passover Seder.
The second, and perhaps more significant difference, comes as we conclude our liturgy tonight. The Passover Seder concludes with the hope-filled shout, “Next year in Jerusalem!” - but, not so our liturgy. No, tonight, we will process from this room into the sanctuary, singing a haunting melody “Stay with me; remain here with me; watch and pray; watch and pray.” Arriving in the sanctuary, we will be still for a moment and then begin a slow and deliberate recitation of Psalm 22 as all adornment is stripped from the altar just as the body of Jesus, Christ’s temple, was stripped in preparation for the crucifixion. We will be left in silence, in darkness, in emptiness – and in the emptiness we may begin to realize that all tangible evidence of God with us, has been stripped away. Those powerful, kataphatic symbols of God among us – bread, wine, community – will be replaced by the equally powerful non-symbols of God’s absence – apophatic (the unknowable God). An absence that moves beyond words so that even our sense of community - typically established through conversation - will be stripped from us as we are invited to leave not as one body, but each of us, as separate from one another, when we feel ready, departing in silence.
Shortly after Mother Teresa’s death, you may recall that her diaries became public. Time Magazine captured our attention with its headline, “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: Newly Published Letters Reveal a Beloved Icon’s Crisis of Faith.” Here is an excerpt from her diary:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
Despite the sensationalistic headlines decrying her faith, the reality of Mother Teresa’s experience finds parallels in that of many Christians and, indeed, in much of Scripture. Rather than finding God in the bread, the wine, the community, many others have instead experienced God’s absence. Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic peace activist and poet, lists the many ways in which this absence has been expressed through the centuries, “the Vast Emptiness, the Dark Night, the Endless Expanse, the ‘Absent One,” and then Berger adds that, in fact, “There is no language to build a bridge of human relationship with this aspect of the Divine.” This approach to experiencing God through the negative – that is, of experiencing the un-God – is as much a part of our Christian heritage as is the positive approach to experiencing God.
In the Western church, we tend to focus more on the positive which is part of the reason, I believe, that many of us avoid these days of Holy Week. But our story of salvation, to be complete, must take us through the darkness – through the negative – in order to ultimately attain the positive. Tonight begins the Three Days – the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. These are not three separate worship services but are, in fact, all part of one service. There will be no dismissal at the conclusion of tonight’s liturgy or tomorrow’s. The dismissal is reserved for the conclusion of worship which is at the end of the Great Vigil on Saturday night. Those who participate in all three portions of the service will experience both God and un-God, knowing and not knowing and will have the unique opportunity to experience the fullness of our faithful response to God – a full faith that encompasses both hope and doubt.
 Psalm 34:8
 This list of contrasts comes from The Rt. Rev. Vincent W. Warner, “Values of Servant Leadership,” in Diocesan Profile: The Episcopal Church in Western Washington, Diocese of Olympia accessed on October 19, 2006 at http://www.blogger.ecww.org (link no longer active).
 Time Magazine, September 7, 2007
 Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta , Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., (New York: The Mother Teresa Center, 2007), 187.
 Rose Marie Berger, “All Quiet on the God Front,” Sojourners (Vol. 37(3): March 2008), p. 19.