Holy Thursday, 15th c. Russian

Holy Thursday, 15th c. Russian


Maundy Thursday

There is something about the Maundy Thursday liturgy that always connects with my deepest feelings . . . In fact, I think it is probably my most favorite liturgy of the entire Church Year! Maundy Thursday is so very different in tone and mood. It is something quite “other” than the deep solemnity of Good Friday, or the dark brilliance of Midnight Mass at Christmas, or even the glorious joy of the Easter Vigil.aPerhaps what I most like about it is that it is so very ordinary, so very simple.

When I was a sister of the Order of St. Helena, the Convent celebrated Holy Week according to the ancient traditions of the Church, following the Monastic schedule: We all kept complete silence for the entire week (except for the Offices—Morning and Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayer and Compline). Even guests who came to spend the week with us entered into the silence, which seemed to deepen as the week went along and we read all the scriptures telling of Jesus’ last week: His grand entrance into the City on Palm Sunday, his teaching in the Temple, and his driving out the money-changers. . . . It was all like being a participant in a grand drama.

Yet when we came to the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, the mood shifted: our silence was ended as we bustled around in the kitchen, preparing an Agape Feast of roast lamb and all the trimmings. Even the chapel and sacristy became places of heightened activity: polishing the best silver chalice and preparing for the vigil through the night.

But even in the bustling around, there was an awareness that what we were doing was so ordinary, so simple

Ordinary, simple activities that all of us, as single people and families, have been doing this night also: We’ve had our evening meal, perhaps leisurely, perhaps rushed, yet all of us doing what we do every night of our lives . . . Gathering around our kitchen tables at the close of the day, perhaps with family, or friends; gathering to eat our meals, to talk, to be with one another.

Now, in the liturgy, we are about to do another simple thing: to give rest to the weary by reaching out and touching each other—by bending some tired, aching backs to lean over and touch gently some tired, aching and dirty feet. Simply to do for another what we might wish to have done for our own weariness.

Then we will gather again around this second table to share in another very simple meal: a morsel of bread, a sip of wine.

And then the night will close down, and we will each go off our separate ways—some to sleep, some to work, some to watch and pray.

Simple things: eating, touching, praying.

Simple things which have been done down through the ages from the time the world began—in different ways, in different times, even to different Gods—but still such simple things.

Pre-historic cave dwellers sharing a successful hunt around a fire—eating quickly, speaking but rarely, drawing close to one another as the night draws in with its unknown terrors.

A wandering Aramean herdsman—Abraham—offering curds and milk and a young calf to three strangers by the oaks of Mamre, and receiving their commiserations about a barren wife named Sarah.

City dwellers, aliens in a foreign land, preparing to flee their oppressors, eating in haste of roasted lamb, and bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.

Within my own memory, the family gathering at the end of a long day, eating our dinner, sharing the news of the day, simply being in the presence of one another in quiet communion and joy. And then we’d adjourn to the living room to sit by the fire, read the paper, do homework. And so often, Daddy would ask my sister or me to rub his feet, tired from standing in long hours of surgery or from walking miles of irrigation ditches on the farm.

Simple, ordinary things of eating…touching…loving.

And yet so very profound.

These very simple things are so full of meaning and power and love that they have undergirded the whole of Western civilization as we know it. Ordinary actions meeting ordinary human needs, becoming the most powerful sacraments of God’s love.

Simple things we do, but O! such a wealth of riches held for us in their very simplicity.

We think of Maundy Thursday as the beginning of the Triduum—the “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday: In the monastic tradition there is an intensification of silence, a paring down of the Office to its bare bones of psalms and collect; and then the heady joy of a talking dinner, a joy is muffled by the knowledge of the hours that lie before us . . . the hours when each of us would “watch one hour” before the reserved Sacrament, in memory of the dark hours Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane, the hours during which his disciples fell asleep.

Maundy Thursday is also the time in which we celebrate the centrality of the Eucharist—of its institution on this night—of the words of Jesus: “This is my Body. This is my Blood.”

We move from dinner that feeds our bodies to the Eucharist that nourishes our souls. We move from the light-hearted banter of late afternoon to the solemn joy of touching one another, hands to feet.

We move from the communal sharing of the dinner table to the communion of the altar—and then we move from that union with one another to the solitude of our own homes, some of us perhaps spending an hour in prayer this night, as we too, remember Jesus in the Garden as he prayed, “Father, let this cup be taken from me . . .

Through all these activities—family meals and the washing of feet, and the sharing of Holy Communion, there runs a single thread, a single meaning: That is the command of this night: To love one another.

Just as the most simple actions become such profoundly grace-filled sacraments, so too does that single thread of love lead us to many levels, in many directions.

It leads us to the immense love brought to us through the faithfulness of the church over the ages; to the love that reaches out to embrace the penitent and the sorrowful; to the love that restores both the individual and the community.

There is a wonderful moment in the old Roman rite of reconciliation on Maundy Thursday, in which the penitents (barefooted and carrying unlit candles) are presented by the archdeacon to the Bishop at the door of the church. The archdeacon says,

“The acceptable time is at hand, the day of God’s mercy and man’s salvation, when death is destroyed and eternal life begins—For, although there is no moment when God’s goodness and love are absent, now in his mercy his forgiveness of sins is more abundant . . . Now our community is increased by the reborn, our numbers augmented by those returning. The waters cleanse and so do tears; therefore we rejoice at those who are first called, and our joy is great when sinners are forgiven.”

“Waters cleanse, and so do tears.” . . . This is the sign of that great love which calls us here tonight. If we are to be fully human, fully who we are called to be by God, we often need to weep with one another, to forgive one another, to be cleansed and healed together.

We also need to nourish one another. How well do we truly know and care for one another? We may live, work, eat, and pray together but so often we may walk in loneliness in the midst of community. This, too, is where we are led by that great thread of love: to the love that truly nourishes the other—”This is my Body, given for you.” To the love that draws us all into the one great bond of love in Christ Jesus. And above all we are drawn to the immense love of the Father that sustained Jesus in the loneliness of the Garden, and that sustains us in our loneliness.

It is not easy to discover this kind of loving nourishment. Perhaps it is particularly difficult to find in a one-sex, celibate community such as a monastery or convent; perhaps it is also difficult to find in ordinary families, in ordinary communities. Yet that great difficulty is also our greatest opportunity for truly finding and sharing the nourishment of love.

I don’t know exactly how it is done, but perhaps an experience I had years ago may help reveal it. One morning, while celebrating Eucharist at the convent, I looked at the wine in the chalice and saw something I had never before seen. In the center of the wine was a light, through which it seemed I was able to gaze into the whole heart of the universe. Then I realized that the light was formed by a perfectly symmetrical reflection from the four sanctuary lamps.

Because of the angles at which the light was reflected, it could only be seen when one stood in the place of the celebrant. I could not gather the sisters around the altar and show them this light all at the same time. It could only be seen by someone standing in one particular spot. It felt very lonely when I realized no one else could see what I saw—at least not in that moment. I could only tell others of the Light . . . the Love which I saw in the chalice at that moment.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for the loneliness which so many of us experience in our culture: the loneliness of parent and child; the loneliness of the elderly; the loneliness of the homeless; the loneliness of the ethnic or sexual minority. . . The love that we each see can only be seen by our own eyes; and yet we are drawn by that same love to carry it to each and every one of us. If we do not share the love that sustains our loneliness, if we do not nourish one another with that love, we too will die, we too will be abandoned and hungry.

Simple things we do this night:




Simple things which are so profound, and which are rooted in Love. Simple things which each of us sees from our own eyes, in particular and individual ways. Simple things which speak of the Love of God . . . but only if we speak, only if we eat together, touch one another, pray together.

Jesus says to his disciples on this night, as he washes their feet: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Simple things.


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