Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy Thursday

I recall a particular Holy Thursday, over 20 years ago,
listening to the first reading, the story of the Passover.
It suddenly struck me that this story
was not about something that happened years ago
to an obscure group of slaves in bronze-age Egypt,
but, in some mysterious way,
was about something that had happened to me.
I had been marked with the blood of the lamb who was slain,
and the angel of death had passed over me,
and I was the one who was to remember and give thanks.
Though I could not explain it in any way
that would fully satisfy the demands of reason,
I knew that this story was also my story,
the story of all of us who have been baptized into Christ
and marked with the sign of his cross.
In the years since then,
I have struggled to understand this mystery.
Isn't this, after all, what theologians are supposed to do?
Isn't this, after all, what all of us as disciples are supposed to do:
to sit at the feet of our master and learn and understand?
But before some mysteries understanding must, in the end,
give way to silent, ecstatic adoration.
This too is part of what it means to be a disciple:
to learn how to live in the mystery that we cannot master.

This night is filled with such mysteries.
Or, rather, this night is filled
with the one mystery that is the story of Christ:
the one mystery that is refracted
through a multitude of particular mysteries:
a people saved from slavery and death by the blood of a lamb,
a meal in which the flesh of God becomes our food,
the creator of the universe stooping to wash our feet.
These things are mysteries
not because they leave something hidden from us,
but because they show us everything,
and our finite human minds cannot take it in.
In the second century Melito of Sardis spoke of Christ,
the Alpha and the Omega,
as “the beginning which cannot be explained
and the end which cannot be grasped.”
In Christ, nothing is hidden; everything is revealed.
But just as we can be blinded by light that is too bright for our eyes,
the light shed by Christ dazzles our reason
and disorients our desire to grasp and control the mystery that is God.

Of course, we have our techniques.
We have our ways of trying to tame this mystery,
to make it something that we can handle,
something we can use,
something we can master.
We can turn the story of the first Passover
into a simple historical event, locked in the past.
We can turn the mystery of Eucharist
into a human meal of fellowship and remembrance.
We can turn Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet
into a simple moral lesson about service.

Such things can be easily grasped, easily mastered,
if we reduce them to our level of understanding
and hold them at a safe distance.
Or so we think.
But on this night we do not observe these things from afar;
rather, through our liturgical celebration we dwell in these events
and let them dwell in us.
We become disciples of the mystery
and let it pervade our consciousness.
We unclench the grasp of merely human reason
so that our hearts and souls and minds
can be carried beyond themselves
into the very life of God.

In a few moments, in the ceremony of the washing of feet,
we shall obey the command of Christ:
“as I have done for you, you should also do.”
We shall follow his example of humble service
in a ritual that speaks to us of our call as disciples
to serve those who are in need.
For we wash feet in myriad ways:
giving food to the hungry,
seeking justice for the oppressed,
offering friendship to the lonely.
In all of these actions we follow Jesus’ example
and fulfill his command:
“as I have done for you, you should also do.”

But there is more going on in Jesus’ washing of his disciples' feet
than a simple example for emulation.
Rather, it is an enacted parable of the mystery of our salvation.
When Jesus removes his outer cloak
and ties the servant’s towel around his waist
this is not simply part of the practical business of footwashing.
It is an action that brings before our eyes
the mystery of the eternal Son of God
stripping himself of his divine glory and taking the form of a servant,
so that he might stoop at the feet of his own creation
and pour out his life for the world,
a cleansing flood that can wash away the stain of sin
and give us new life.
For the water that flows over the feet of the disciples
is in fact the blood of Christ:
the blood of the sacrificed lamb
that marks and protects the dwelling of God’s people,
the blood that is in the cup of eternal salvation
from which we are invited to drink.
It is this mystery that enfolds and sustains
our giving of food,
our seeking of justice,
our offering of friendship.

We try to understand this, and it is right that we do so,
for Christ speaks to us the same words he spoke to Peter:
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
And we will understand, in the end, when we see God face to face
and know as we are known.
But what we will understand, in the end, is that we stand before a mystery:
it is not something that we master,
but something that masters us.
We will understand that we live within the mystery of God,
and that this is what it means truly to live.
And so, tonight, let our minds bow before
the mystery that has stooped to wash our feet,
the mystery that has given its life to guard us from death,
the mystery that has become our food and drink.