“On Maundy Thursday we discover that even when everything has been taken away, something remains,” Richard Lister said a few years back. I sit here looking into a strange and isolated Holy Week where much of how we live our lives around the globe has been stripped away. We have entered into a period of waiting, feeling naked in the dark, struggling to find our footing in the midst of isolation and anxiety. Like wood and stone laid bare when the richly embroidered linens are yanked from the altar, we stand here with our basic selves revealed. It feels vulnerable, and cold, and exposed, and painful.
The stripping of the altar in the traditions that include this as part of Maundy Thursday comes after the texts and the liturgy leads us through the steps Jesus took on his last night with his disciples. Stripping himself of his own robe, and taking on the role of the lowest of the slaves, he begins to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-15). Dusty and dirty, tired and sore–and probably more than a little stinky–God-in-the-flesh tends to the flesh of those closest to him in a simple, menial, profound act. He bases the role of leadership and teaching in the duties of a servant, a continual reminder that any interaction with our neighbors is based in service of their basic needs.
Not only do our lives feel stripped down to the bone during this isolation, but the cracks and injustices of our society have had light shined on them, the facades are being stripped away. The ugliness and oppression that has always festered in our system is being exposed in ever more obvious ways to those with eyes to see. For those inherently oppressed by the system these cracks, gaps, and chasms have always been exposed, but to those the system benefits, its design hides the insidiousness in order to perpetuate itself.
Jesus reveals himself to us in the feet washed, the bread broken, and the wine poured out. It is only in service to others and in the sharing of our lives with the intention of meeting the basic needs of our neighbors that we truly imitate the one we claim we follow.
In the liturgy for Maundy Thursday in the Book of Common Prayer, the minister leads the congregation in a call and response as a part of the feet washing. The minister says, “Peace is my last gift to you, my own peace I now leave with you; peace which the world cannot give, I give to you.” And the people respond, “By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: That you have love for one another.” This oft-quote text that the world will know us by our love is perhaps so familiar as to have become opaque. For what is love if it is divorced from sacrifice? What is love if it does not desire the total well-being and thriving of all our neighbors? What is love if it is removed from doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8).
It’s been said that Christians are an Easter people, but the Triduum (The Three Days), leading up to Easter contain some of the most profound truths of our faith. Jesus instituted communion or the eucharist as what we do in remembrance of him. We are called to proclaim his death until he comes. Easter Sunday is often the most crowded in our entire liturgical year. We love to show up with our new outfits and our clean and shiny faces, to put flowers in our crosses and make beautiful an instrument of torture. We proclaim the resurrection and are filled with hope. And that is as it should be, but sitting here, the Thursday before, with our altars stripped, washing the tired and dirty feet of our neighbors, and hearing anew the words of institution, “To proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corintheans 11: 26b), we are invited into a new way of being. If we don’t sit with these truths, we may too easily find ourselves proclaiming a shallow gospel: trying to preach hope without sacrifice and resurrection without death.
This year we face a unique Holy Week. Everything has been taken away. What remains is an opportunity to discover what loving our neighbors completely–loving them enough to fight for shalom for everyone–really means in the context of a society that offers a thin gospel and thin freedoms. For a gospel of resurrection without death, and freedom that isn’t offered to everyone is neither gospel nor freedom.