The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
A Meditation for Maundy Thursday
© 2015 Frank B Crumbaugh III
I suppose the most logical way to participate in Holy Week is to attend the liturgies as the week progresses, and to do so looking for and looking at Jesus. This time-tested, perfectly appropriate method places us before God in these most holy days.
Maundy Thursday is certainly is no exception. As we witness the last night before He dies, we are right to look at Jesus, and ponder the great strength and courage He displays as the inexorable events of this night roll forward. In the patois of the young, things are about to “get real,” and Jesus’ responses as events accelerate deserve our time and our meditation. We certainly learn a lot about ourselves as we contemplate these last hours of Jesus’ earthly life; His actions teach us much of our own shortcomings as we observe our faith and strength next to His.
There is another way to gain an even better grasp of ourselves so that the Gospel may transform us. I think, in fact, that we learn much about ourselves- perhaps more than we are comfortable knowing and certainly more than we are comfortable talking about- when we sit in a chair at table we would never think to sit in- Jesus’ chair. As much as we learn of our personal story and our inborn human nature by watching Him, I think we learn even more by seeing through the one pair of eyes we never think to look through- His, as He watches us. As Jesus sits to table this night, whom does He see? From where Jesus is sitting, who is sitting down to supper with Him?
Jesus looks and sees a blundering oaf- Jesus sees Peter. Peter means well and has a good heart. While he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he wants so badly to please Jesus that Peter usually speaks and acts without thinking very much, if at all. Peter does this sincerely, and he demonstrates his affection, devotion and enthusiasm. Peter is the reactive soul in the room- the one who assumes that every statement and action requires a response. Peter is indiscriminately, compulsively reactive. He is constitutionally incapable of not speaking first. Peter by reflex refuses to have Jesus humble Himself in washing his feet, and once Jesus takes him to school on this remark, Peter with equal reflexivity asks that Jesus give him a bath. Peter is not subtle. Peter was the kid whose hand always shot up first in class, “Ooh ooh, I know! I know! Pick me! Pick me!” And if he didn’t know the answer, he made a joke at the expense of the one who did. His eager sincerity and good intentions are overbearing in their own way, and those intentions fully heard and duly noted, Peter will deny that He even knows the guy he claims himself willing to join in death. Jesus sees Peter.
Jesus looks and sees a guarded soul- Jesus sees Thomas. Thomas has trained himself not to trust too much…not because Thomas is naturally skeptical, but because Thomas doesn’t want to get hurt. Perhaps sometime long before he met Jesus, Thomas learned to protect himself….his experience seems to have taught him that being open and hopeful would leave him open to pain and disillusionment. Thomas is a well-defended personality, a highly guarded soul who has finally dared to trust and believe that his friendship with Jesus is real. That friendship has changed Thomas’ life. Trusting this relationship with Jesus has run counter to Thomas’ instincts. Thomas’ first realization of this change is knowing that he has eased into trusting and believing in Jesus to the point that, as Peter will soon say, Thomas already has said- that he will go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus. Thomas has come to a courageous, trusting belief, and even if he hears Jesus well enough to offer to go to Jerusalem and die with Him, Thomas has not counted the cost to himself of Jesus’ death. Thomas has not really imagined himself living, and Jesus dying. He has spent so much energy focusing on gaining Jesus that losing Jesus at the Cross shatters his emergent confidence and faith. At his best, Thomas will be hurt and baffled by Good Friday, and at his most pathetic self-referent worst, he’ll whine “Why did you do this to me?” His unsteadiness will make Thomas the last of the 11 to see Jesus resurrected. Jesus sees Thomas.
Jesus looks at his friends and He sees the smartest and therefore most dangerous of them all- Jesus sees Judas. Judas has made himself indispensible by undertaking the thankless task of carrying the common purse. Though he is self-deprecating and affects a false modesty, Judas wants recognition. Judas wants preferment; he does not want these things as additions to an already rich interior life. No, Judas desperately wants these things because despite how sincerely he thinks and says otherwise, he is a cloying, energy-and-light-consuming emotional black hole. There is no amount of love that will ever satisfy Judas. That is true because Judas chooses that it will be true. His desperate neediness is killing him, and it’s about to kill Jesus too. Judas wants to get close to Jesus and his fellow disciples, and something never quite clicks. Judas knows the lingo and all the inside jokes and all the right moves…. he wants to be one of them and share the camaraderie that he envies among the others- the easy laughter, the genuine un-self-conscious affection freely given and received, the authentic uncontrived care…. and no one, himself first and foremost, takes Judas seriously when he tries to fit in.… Judas is a counterfeit, a fraud…he is trying too hard- he’s pushing- he’s dying for affectionate acceptance from Jesus and the others, and he doesn’t understand that he already has it. Judas cannot take “Yes” as an answer, and he does not understand the reluctance and the resistance he gets when he tries so hard; it bewilders him and then it makes him angry. He first is hurt and then is mean. He strives for what he already has. His actions say he doesn’t know that, or if he does, he doesn’t believe it, or if he believes it, it’s not enough. A confused, misguided, un-self-aware fog becomes an irrational, vicious fit of pique, and Judas becomes a traitor- first to himself and then to Jesus. Jesus sees Judas.
Jesus looks and He sees the one who gets it- Jesus sees John. John relishes his closeness with Jesus, and he has been in the inner circle among the disciples almost from the beginning. John really does love Jesus, and Jesus really loves John. John’s relationship with Jesus is free of the bluff strutting of Peter, it is free the tentative confidence of Thomas, and it is free of the cloying, acquisitive seeking of Judas. John is loved and he knows it, and he authentically reciprocates that love. John’s relationship with Jesus is genuine; there is nothing contrived or awkward in his relationship with Jesus. John loves Him, and it is John who will go into court with Jesus. It is John who will stand at the foot of the Cross, and not flinch when his dying friend commends His Mother to him. It is this good friend who is powerless to change the violence that is carrying his friend Jesus away. As cool as he is and with all of the love he has for Jesus, John can do nothing to help or comfort or save Him. Jesus sees John.
Jesus sees them all and they are more alike than they can imagine and more broken than they can admit. It would not surprise us in the least if He muttered, “This is it? I may have made a mistake if this is the leadership cadre of the Church about to be born.” Instead we hear Him say, “…you also should do as I have done to you…. love one another as I have loved you.”
He sees us at table too. He sees us at this meal where He gives us words that 72 hours later will become sacramental words. He sees us at table and He sees us just as He saw Peter and Thomas and Judas and John- we are neither better nor worse than they. He is the one the collect for purity claims “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” He sees. He sees you and He sees me as clearly as He saw the Twelve at supper with Him. And He wants to give US the words, friends. US! He wants to become the sacrament that makes those words holy. He wants to entrust us with these holy means by which we may gather, and in so doing He promises to be present. He wants to do this- He wants to wash our feet and feed us. He wants to do this in spite of whom He sees. He wants to do this even though, and precisely because, we’re the ones sitting down to supper with Him.