Maundy Thursday: Moving towards a new wilderness

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Maundy Thursday: Moving towards a new wilderness
"We go to the wilderness of the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, to watch and wait. We wait for the cross. We wait for the darkness to descend. We wait for death." (Agony in the Garden, El Greco, 1590). Photo: Wikipedia

I couldn’t get to sleep last Saturday night. Normally, falling asleep is not a problem for me. But with the upending of normal life these last weeks, the absence of routine, the loss of the “natural” physical exercise of going about one’s day—let’s face it, with the grief we are collectively feeling at this time—all of this kept me awake. We were about to launch into Holy Week, that great week, that greatest of weeks, and nothing was as it should be. Palm Sunday, a day I have adored since I was a child, would not be Palm Sunday as it is supposed to be.

And so I went down an iPhone rabbit hole. Actually I went down many iPhone rabbit holes. I can’t recall what triggered it but I ended up doing a search of things to do with my childhood. The public school I attended, now torn down in favour of houses. The names of my favourite teachers, seeing if I could find out whether they were still alive. Then I got onto looking up things about my father, who died nine years ago on Easter Monday, after being in palliative care all of Holy Week. And his colleagues and friends whose names I remembered. And our family dentist. One link led to another. On and on it went until I had to force myself to stop, put down my phone, turn off the light and try to sleep.

David Harrison

What was going on? What was all of this about? And why last Saturday night? I think, in retrospect, that I was looking for solid ground. For sure footing. That I was looking to grab hold of what had been. Because looking ahead was to face into a void, an emptiness, into the unknown—into the wilderness. Enveloped as I have been with feelings of emptiness, aimlessness and wandering, I was (and am) grieving the loss of all that is familiar and cherished in the marking of this week. Indeed, how will we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Today is Maundy Thursday. The beginning of the Triduum, the great Three Days. Two rituals mark the liturgy of this day: the washing of feet and the sharing of bread and wine. In both cases, Jesus shows us by example and tells us to do the same. To wash one another’s feet. And to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. But yet this year we can’t. Not in ways that are familiar. We cannot get close enough to one another to stoop down and wash feet. We cannot gather in person to take and eat.

The first reading for the liturgy of Maundy Thursday is from the Book of Exodus. It is the institution of the Passover meal. It is full of ritual detail. Each household is to take a lamb. Sharing with other households is encouraged. The lamb is to be slaughtered at twilight, roasted over the fire and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. None of it is to be eaten raw or boiled. Anything that remains is to be burned. And blood from the lamb is to be smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the home. Because this is the Passover of the Lord, and the blood will be a signal to God to pass-over the homes of the people of Israel so that their first-born is not struck down.

But this is not to be a leisurely meal; far from it. This meal is to be eaten with loins girded, sandals on feet, staff in hand. It is to be eaten hurriedly, because liberation is coming. All of the plagues which God has rained down on Egypt have only served to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Yet the people of Israel will be freed, and soon. But free to where? To the wilderness, in fact: The Israelites will pass through the Red Sea only to find themselves in a different kind of wilderness. A wilderness, at times, of famine and thirst. There will be times when the old life, under the thumb of Pharaoh, will seem much better than wandering in the wilderness.

Each Maundy Thursday we do the same. After feet have been washed and the Eucharist celebrated, the altars and the church are stripped bare while a psalm of desolation that foreshadows the cross (My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?) is sung or said. And then we go to the wilderness of the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, to watch and wait. We wait for the cross. We wait for the darkness to descend. We wait for death.

This Maundy Thursday we move toward a particular kind of wilderness, like one we have never experienced before. A wilderness where the rhythms and symbols and actions of this day are taken from us, and where the landscape ahead of us seems the more barren. The journey on foot for the people of Israel to the Promised Land should have taken 11 days; that would have been their expectation. Instead it took 40 years. We do not know how long the journey ahead of us into this particular wilderness will last. When public worship was suspended in mid-March we might have anticipated being back together on Easter Day. Now that seems a fanciful dream.

In the wilderness, looking back is appealing. We know from where we have come. We know what was familiar and comforting in the past, even though we might not have been free. Last Saturday night I descended into the rabbit holes of my past and found there comfort, and familiarity, and a deep longing for what was.

But God draws our attention not backward but forward. God draws the people of Israel to the Promised Land. God draws the people of Jesus to the cross, which seems to be the epitome of darkness—the depth of the depths, the most barren place imaginable. On Good Friday, after we have knelt down in veneration of our crucified Lord on the cross, there are no rituals left. We are done. It is finished. We are alone. Simply alone. Isolated.

And then there is a spark. And a fire is kindled in that wild, dark, uncertain place. And we lift our eyes to find that we are not alone. And never were.

The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

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