Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

This Is All We Have.


During Passion Week, everything moves faster. We've been trudging through Lent, our disciplines starting to bite by now, and the routine has started to take on a tedium. Then Passion Week and boom, suddenly things kick into high gear: Jesus is heralded into Jerusalem and just over seventy-two hours later, we find ourselves at Maundy Thursday. Is it Easter already? Not quite. First we have a killing to plan.

If Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday were odd holidays, Maundy Thursday is even more odd. Many Protestants barely give it a nod (unless they're Lutheran or Episcopalian). Do Evangelicals even know it exists? It's one of those remnants of old liturgies. Maundy Thursday is a night of preparation, of cleaning, of getting one's house in order, of the clearing of the decks. Ash Wednesday, we remember our mortality. Palm Sunday, we remember our hypocrisy. Maundy Thursday, we remember our betrayal and we remember why we remember. Things move quickly these next few days and trauma has an odd way of affecting what we know, so we have to remember. 

On Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper is held, but it is also the First Supper. Here Jesus tells his disciples how to remember him, in bread and wine, common, basic, essential members of any ancient meal. The ancient Greek meal of the Symposium, which Plato made famous, is transformed into something bigger, into a Thanksgiving, which is what the Greek word "eucharist" means. The Eucharist is treated in the Church as a Thanksgiving to God for Jesus, but there seems to be a tacit thank you from Jesus to his followers. They have gone with him through the long haul, these last few years. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

And then he washes their feet. When I was at divinity school, Maundy Thursday became one of the most important days of the Christian year for me. We would set up chairs, basins of water, and towels, and each student who attended the service, would get their feet washed by a classmate, and then the person who had just received a footwashing would wash the feet of the next student in line. It was very intimate. It was to be served and to serve.

And at St. Lydia's, we do this as well. We had our Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday all on last Sunday. To combine the two services is an interesting pairing. Things move very quickly in a small amount of time. In the beginning, we're joyfully raising our palms, after our meal, we have feet in the palms of our hands. There were about thirty of us and we had our footwashing service in the zendo where we meet. It was very powerful.

As I watched everyone wash each other's feet and have their feet washed, I thought to myself, "This is all we have." This act of love and kindness and servanthood to one another is all we have in life. This is the life of the Church. When the Gospel is (and the gospels are) stale, we can wash each other's feet. When we do not believe or unsure of what we believe, we can wash each other's feet. When we have nothing left to say, we can wash each other's feet. When we are tired, we can receive this hospitality. And when we are tired, we can offer this hospitality. It keeps us busy. It keeps us from getting bored, for boredom is the root of all evil. We must serve each other because we have nothing else and nothing left. Jesus is going and he has taught us things to do to keep us from going crazy.

After everyone's feet were washed, we read The Betrayal, when Judas receives the bread and the nod. "What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus tells him. And Judas, his feet freshly washed, goes out into the dust of the night. At this point in the story, my heart becomes very heavy and it becomes very hard to explain why. But I don't have time to explain because things move very quickly after that. The footwashing is the last slow action of Lent. Time is taken to take care of each other. It is the returning from one's self-imposed exile of forty days. 

This is the thing that gets me the most. Good Friday is straightforward. Trial and execution and burial. Boom boom boom. But Maundy Thursday is dizzying in how much is going on. There is the institution of a practice of memory, the lighting of the fuse when Jesus gives Judas the bread, Jesus washing his disciples' smelly and smegmatic feet, and we wash each others' feet, and then everyone, now washed, cleans up the Church and the Kitchen (for St. Lydia's is a dinner church) in complete silence and leaves not a trace. We cleaned up the basins and water. We cleaned up the dishes. We cleaned up the tables. We gave the zendo back to its kind owners. And we each put on our shoes and went back out into the night.

In Maundy Thursday, Every trace of God becomes absent, gone. We strip everything about God away. We strip the altar. There is no more Eucharist. The Church is empty, really empty. We hollow ourselves out, in a way. The Church becomes its own tomb. And all that is left is a very stark, existential humanity. Together, we are alone. For those interested, there will be the Stations of the Cross. And there is the Saturday vigil. And it gets really, really quiet. Because we are waiting. With freshly washed and dried feet, we wait. And we go out into the night, our feet washed with each others' hands. Because this is all we have. Each other to take care of us is all we have.


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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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