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A Beautiful Thing: A Maundy Thursday Dream

A pdf version of this commentary can be read and printed here.
“Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you’ve
got till it’s gone.
They paved paradise,
put up a parking lot.”
A half-century after Joni Mitchell wrote her hit song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” I now find myself humming the tune about another kind of paradise lost.  We are living these days under what feels like house arrest, as we observe “social distancing.” That’s an oxymoron, if there ever was one. Human beings are soft-wired – if not hardwired – to be together. Nowadays, the kindest thing we can do for each other is to keep our distance.

Religious faith communities struggle to improvise, substituting modern-day technological alternatives for what is no longer possible in this alternate reality we are all experiencing. Preachers have all been turned into live-streaming televangelists. Where we once scoffed at drive-thru communion and Sunday morning drive-ins for worship services, there could now be a whole new kind of Revival meetings going on.

St. Peter’s Square will be as empty as a tomb on Easter morning; when the faithful of that faith tradition have to receive the Holy Father’s blessing from a flat-screen. And, the particular relevance of the Passover observance now underway in the Jewish faith community could not be more plaintive. We shelter in place, as the Angel of Death indiscriminately makes its brooding way among the peoples of the earth.

I’ve never been made more aware of how void of meaning religious expressions can be when deprived of the rituals of physical human touch and interaction. Virtual reality is a poor substitute for, well, human reality. Linking up online with a ZOOM video conference call just isn’t the same as gathering a circle to exchange “the heart of peace” with a physical embrace; as my Pathways group has done for years on a monthly basis.
In the Christian faith tradition, this is most apparent with the absence of ritual during the perennial Lenten-Easter journey. Without the smudge of ash on the forehead, reminding us of our mortal nature; without the passion-filled re-enactment of the Palm Sunday story; without the foot-washing and remembrance of a shared supper of bread and wine, there’s a physical void that precedes the metaphorical meaning of an empty tomb.
I’m writing this commentary on what is traditionally known as Maundy Thursday.  It is the remembering of a gospel tale; where the Jesus figure subordinated himself to everyone else, and then mandated  his friends and would-be followers to do as he had done. In this seemingly alternate reality in which we are living these days under a different commandment to self-isolate, we might well ask how we can we truly take to heart these words,

“So if I am your Teacher and Master and have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. In other words, I’ve set you an example; you are to do as I have done to you.” (Jn. 13:14)

Biblical scholars generally concur we have no evidence those words in John’s gospel were ever uttered by the historical Jesus. But that hardly matters. Whatever the original source of those words, the message handed down to us over the centuries remains more true today than ever before; if only we might hear and heed it.

In recent days, as the most recent worldwide viral pandemic has included Italy in particular, a picture appeared over the internet; depicting an altered rendition of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” No one is at the table to utter or hear those poignant words, “Do this, in remembrance of me.”

I’d like to believe the reason is because everyone who’d gathered ’round has already gotten up from table, donned their PPE (personal protective equipment), and humbly knelt down to wash each other’s feet. Unseen.

For many years in formal ministry, I always felt privileged to re-enact the foot-washing ritual with anyone under my pastoral charge. But it was only once each year. And quite honestly, my parishioner’s feet were never that dirty!

But today and tomorrow, I’ll remember instead the medical workers, morticians and other public servants, who follow a mandatum for the sake of this human community; and who risk contagion for the sake of those truly in need.

In the Christian faith tradition, Easter has always meant to me the death of what once was, and is no more; so that the assured hope and promise of something new can always rise once more. From a respectable social distance, I have remarked to others in recent days how ironic it may be, that a modern plague may be the one thing that might finally (and literally) bring a divided nation and estranged global community together once, and for all.

In the Christian faith tradition, Easter has always meant to me the death of what once was, and is no more; so that the assured hope and promise of something new can always rise once more.

I awoke this morning, imagining an extraordinary scene; with a modern-day variation of the Maundy Thursday tale. In the White House briefing room, the President had removed his suit coat and donned his personal protective equipment. He was kneeling at the feet of Speaker Pelosi, and gently caressing her bare feet with soap and warm water; then drying them with his monogrammed handkerchief.  She was weeping, with tears of absolution, as she prayed for him.

I would call that Easter. And, it truly would be a beautiful thing.

© 2020 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.
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