Give In To The Dark – March 24, 2016

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Maundy Thursday
March 24, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

We gather tonight on the Thursday of the holiest of weeks. By this point in the progression of the week’s events, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, but has not yet been tried or crucified, and he is still several hours and many twists and turns away from the triumph of his resurrection. In some ways, this is the eye of the storm—the calm right before everything goes to pieces.

Of all of the different observances of this week, Maundy Thursday is perhaps the hardest to define and the most difficult to figure out. Everyone knows what Easter is, or should. There might not even have been a Christianity without the amazing claim that a human being rose from the dead, and our secular culture does a pretty good job of reminding us whenever Easter is around the corner—in fact, I think it was just after Ash Wednesday when I first saw jelly beans in Stew Leonard’s! And while Good Friday and Palm Sunday tend to receive less attention than their more commercial counterpart, most people still know what those days are about and it’s at least fairly easy to provide a summary for those who don’t.

But explaining Maundy Thursday is not quite as simple. Sure, you could say that it’s the day on which we wash each other’s feet. Yet making footwashing the center of Maundy Thursday is a tad misleading. For starters, footwashing isn’t something that Christians have always done on Maundy Thursday. Many Protestants, for example—including Episcopalians—abandoned the practice entirely after the Reformation and did not take it up again until the second half of the twentieth century. There’s also the reality that Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples is not the only event from our Biblical treasury that we commemorate this day. So far, we’ve already recalled the night of the Passover, in which God spared the children of the Israelites from the plague that befelled the first sons of their Egyptian captors. We’ve also recounted the night of the very first Eucharist, in which Jesus presented Bread and Wine as his Body and Blood for the first time. Later tonight, we’ll strip the altar and all its furnishings away in recognition of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and arrest in the Garden by the religious authorities and we’ll also watch the Sacrament in a makeshift garden of our own to reenact the discples’ own overnight watch with Jesus.

So with all these various components, what is Maundy Thursday really, at its essence, all about? The super-religious everywhere like to point to the Latin word, “mandatum,” that serves as the root for the “Maundy” of this liturgy’s title. But personally, I don’t think it is all that helpful to know that “mandatum” means “commandment” or that the commandment to which it refers is Jesus’ encouragement to love one another. After all, the Christian notion of love undergirds so much of the Christian gospel, and over and over again Christianity has portrayed love as central to Christian teaching. To call tonight a night of love might be accurate, but not particularly revealing or comprehensive. There is a lot going on tonight, and it can’t all be explained by the fact that Jesus tells his disciples to love one another.

For me, at least this year, what I find most interesting and compelling about Maundy Thursday is that it is all about events that take place at night. Among all of the other major observances in the Church, this characteristic is peculiar to Maundy Thursday. We do gather in church at night for other occasions, of course—like Christmas Eve, every December 24th, and the Easter Vigil, in just two days time. And here at St. Paul’s we regularly offer Compline and occasionally offer Evensong, two services that both take place at night. But Maundy Thursday is the only observance for which night is absolutely essential. Jesus may have been born in the dark, yes, and may have rose just before dawn, but the exact time of day when certain events happen is murky and unclear in the accounts of Christmas and Easter. And the sky did darken during Jesus’ death on Good Friday, but it did so unnaturally in the middle of the day. When it comes to Maundy Thursday, the fact that it is night when all the action happens is clear and undeniable. We recognize many events in this service—from the Passover to the Eucharist, from the Washing of Feet to the Betrayal in the Garden—but we know, for sure, that they all took place at night.

One of the most memorable spiritual experiences I have had in my life took place on a Maundy Thursday, perhaps ten years ago. At the time, I was in high school and was serving as an acolyte at the cathedral which was my home church. I found Maundy Thursday poignant and moving each year, full as it was with many meaningful moments of power and intimacy—from the washing of a stranger’s feet and the sharing of the Eucharist among a small, faithful group to the procession of the Blessed Sacrament down to a dark crypt chapel and the dramatic changing of veils on the enormous cross above the High Altar.

But this particular Maundy Thursday was special. After the service I found myself for some reason alone in the pitch-black cathedral. Most of the lights had been turned off as part of the end of the liturgy, and one of the ushers or a security guard must have assumed everything was finished and shut off the remaining ones. And yet somehow here I was. As far as I knew, I was the sole human being in this exquisitely grand and expansive space, lit only by the moonlight streaming through the stained glass windows—and I was overwhelmed both by how small I felt and yet how connected to the center of everything. Stopping to stare for once at the gorgeous enormity of the sanctuary I knew so well and doing so alone after all the normal decoration and ornamentation had been removed caused something tremendous to happen to me that could not be fully captured in words. The beauty and majesty and sadness of it all that night taught me more about God than any book or class or sermon ever could.

And that’s the type of thing that the night can do. The night is what provides us with the material to meditate on the mystery of life; the night is what draws us close to one another to feed and care for those we love; the night is even what allows us to betray and desert those who matter to us most. It’s no accident that the events of Maundy Thursday all take place at night. How else would the Israelites have achieved their salvation? How else would Judas have been able to sneak around and scheme? How else would Christ have furnished the supper that would sustain the world? How else would Jesus have said goodbye to his closest friends?

This Maundy Thursday, I invite and urge you to give in to the night, whatever your night may be. Yes, the night has its monsters:[1] loss and sadness may indeed be in its wake, and the betrayers it harbors too can be very real. But know that, whatever the dangers of the night, you have a good chance of finding God there among the shadows: falling on his knees to wash you clean, offering you the food that will make you whole, suffering with you the betrayal of your closest companions, and saving you even when death and destruction are at your door.

[1] In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor explores the value of the night and specifically mentions the classic “monsters” feared by children under the bed. This entire sermon was informed and inspired by her fabulous volume.

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