"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Maundy Thursday Reflection

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I find that my experience of Holy Week, as we walk closer and closer to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is a descent into darkness.  I’ve described it in the past as like waiting for your best friend to die at the end of the week, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.  I think about darkness and suffering as a part of my Lenten vigil.

I’m also reading a book written by a woman in Winnipeg who is suffering the effects of progressive multiple sclerosis titled “Endearing Pain”.  As a chronic pain sufferer myself, her meditations on pain and loss of function and her faith have been quite powerful.  And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering these past few weeks.

So what is it about this evening that we are here to do?  It’s a very strange evening if you look at it in the context of our overall church year, and the cycles that bring us throughout the year.  I’ve said before that everything we do here in worship, the motions we use, the songs we sing, all of this has very specific deep meaning that points us toward what it is that God is doing here in our midst.  On Maundy Thursday we’ve heard the recitation of the Last Supper and the departure of the one who would betray Jesus.  We have this sacramental image left with us tonight even though we know that tomorrow, the death comes.  We are in a place of darkness and yet at the same time we are surrounded by sacramental glory.  This is one of the key points of Maundy Thursday, that as we proceed through our last Eucharist, the last feast at the Lord’s table and move into the stripping of the church of its adornments, and as we walk home tonight in darkness we are experiencing the same thing that the disciples experienced, and the same thing that Christians have experienced for over 2,000 years.  This gathering together around the table for bread and wine, together.  It’s a truly awesome thing that we’re a part of here tonight.

And yet we’re in a place of great tension between this celebration of the Lord’s Supper as if we’re seated in the upper room around a table with the 12, and yet we know what’s coming tomorrow, even while they didn’t.  So this is also a good day to talk about sacraments as we prepare for Christ’s literal departure from the world.

I want to share a secret with you, and I hope I don’t lose my priestly guild card.  There are a series of prayers that are traditionally used by clergy of catholic persuasion around the celebration of Communion, called the “secret prayers”, but they’re not actually secret.  They would be more properly called “private prayers” that are part of the clergy person’s private devotion.  I happen to use the traditional ones, but most clergy I know carry on some type of internal devotion while they’re leading worship.

Sometimes when I’m celebrating, I may use one of them aloud, an opportunity to draw people into my private devotion.  Although they come from two psalms and one Gospel, there is a common thread that links them all together…which is the outstretching of my hands to God to obtain the things I can’t do for myself: salvation, being clean, being worthy, being healed.  Without God the only possible outcome of all my efforts, regardless of how focused and strong they are, is death.

What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all he has done for me?

I shall take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord,

So shall I be safe from my sins.  Psalm 116

Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalm 51

I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof,

But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed. Matthew 8

Each time I take communion, these are the three prayers I utter, following an ancient liturgical tradition.  Sometimes if I am the celebrant, I may say them aloud, but usually these are done under the breath, so they cannot be heard, so-called ‘private’ prayers.  The prayers draw from two psalms, and from the Gospel account of the servant of the Centurion, but have a common thread that links them.  Without God, the only possible outcome of my own effort, is death.  Without God, the only possible outcome of my own effort, is death.

This is a theme that runs through our readings today, on the eve of the saddest day in the Christian calendar.  Why do I say saddest?  One of the traditional cycles of the Christian observance is this Lenten descent into darkness, it is a place we do not like to tread, and a place that many modern churches never contemplate.  We are in the midst of the most advanced society ever known, at least in terms of our science, and it leaves us in a place where we can fool ourselves momentarily into thinking that even death itself is only a small shadow of its former self.  We avoid the thoughts of death like the plague as much as we can because it is one of the few things remaining that has the power to remind us that the one thing this world cannot give us is immortality.  Well tonight we have no such escape.

So this descent into the darkness of Sheol, as our Saviour dies, is a necessary and important part of our yearly cycle of observances, the pattern of the Christian life, because it reminds us once again that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.  What do we have as a sure promise in the midst of that dust?  What reward shall I given unto the Lord for all he has done for me?  I shall take the cup of salvation, so shall I be safe from my sins.  Tonight we gather as a community in mourning, even though we know that in a few short days we will see the rising of a new Son, the only Son of the Father.  But, if we do not willingly walk the road to Sheol, that rising will not be a place where we can learn about living life in this broken world.

Lord knows that I take every opportunity I can to flee sadness, the thought of coming death and sickness, the thought of eyes growing dim as the inevitable march of time takes its toll.  Tonight, all that fleeing is pushed aside as the lie of my attempts to cloak the reality that faces each of us is made plain.  At least part of the reason that Jesus walks that path, and the reason we re-live the walking each year, is to remind us that God knows too well the pains of life in this world, because God surrendered the immortal to live our pain.  This can be real for us, because it was first real for God.  We can walk this path of darkness with steady step, not because of our human-borne courage against the unknown and trust in our own capabilities to overcome all obstacles, but because we know the way has already been blazed for us by the one who came to conquer death.  As the Orthodox will sing on Easter morn, Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs, Bestowing life! (and in Greek and Arabic) [this is formally called the Paschal Troparion]  Trampling down death, by death.

But, before we can sing that response with full heart, we must walk the path of darkness and death because this is the reality of our lives in this physical world.  Death can only be trampled down by death, if there is first a death.  And so here we are, this community of faith, in the midst of death, faced with the death of all those who have gone before, the reality of our death, and the death of those whom we love.  But, and this is a big but, because of Christ, rather than being an evening full of the grimness of grief, our sadness this eve is coloured by our foreknowledge of what is to come.  Because that death has been trampled down by death, those in the tombs have life bestowed.  Even our grief in this moment is coloured brightly by the reality of our faith, that even death itself has lost its sting.  This reversal is characteristic of all the inversions that Christ brought into being with the offering of his self.

God’s trademark move is that reversal.  For there to be life, there must first be death.  For the poor to be  lifted up, and the rich are sent empty away.  For there to be healing, there must first be disease.  God redeems the world — not through the might of armies, or legions of angels, in spite of his name being Yahweh Sabaot, God of the Angel Armies, God redeems the world through his own death to the sins of the world, so that he could rise again, and so that we could rise again.

This radical act of Christ changed the nature of death, and even more importantly for us, also transformed the nature of all suffering.  The world rejects suffering as empty; but even the bad in the world was redeemed by the coming of the Christ. Dorothy Sayers describes the impact of the event in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World:

For whatever reason God chose to make people as they are – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from us that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it all worthwhile.

So, in Christ, because of Christ, all aspects of our lives are made truly worthwhile.  As we rest a moment in darkness this evening, and as we will in a moment divest our worship space of its adornment, know this: even the moments of darkness, death and suffering, even our worst moments, those have already been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  This is one of the core radical thoughts of our faith, and one of the reasons some reject Christianity as unhinged.  What are you talking about, glory in grief?  This is the very grace of God, distilled to its purest essence, and it is what keeps me going even in the darkest times.

I’ll close with the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, the English journalist and essayist and like Lewis, a late-life convert to Christianity.  Late-life converts to Christianity are able to bring to us images about the faith with crystal clarity that people like me, life-long Christians sometimes miss.  I stumbled across these words the other day, and they really struck me, especially knowing a little bit about Muggeridge’s life before Christ.  Listen to his words about how Christ transforms our suffering:

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at that time seemed especially desolating and painful. I now look back upon them with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence has been through affliction and not through happiness whether pursued or attained. In other words, I say this, if it were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, the results would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies and it is the cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.

It is only the cross of Christ that makes our lives bearable, and even more, it is only the cross of Christ that gives meaning even to our suffering and pain.  As so as we dwell in this moment of darkness, meditate on this: that even here, in the dark, rests Christ. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

March 25, 2016 at 11:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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