I was recently contacted by a local journalist, who wanted to write an article about whether truth was dead. She was a terrific person to talk to, but I have to admit that I approached the conversation with some dread. I couldn’t help but be mindful that in the eyes of the larger public, Christians, and maybe clergy in particular, have what is sometimes a well-earned reputation for being purveyors of fake news. We are seemingly quick to proclaim that “love wins,” seemingly quick to minimize the evil in which we are complicit, seemingly glib about the aching questions that accompany the experience of human suffering and vulnerability. We may sometimes seem willing to claim the Easter victory without showing any real sign that we have been willing to carry the cross.
So in preparing for that conversation I experienced, not for the first time, the need to review what it is about our collective lives of faith that might help us to retain a fundamental commitment to honesty. And the answer was, “this.” By the grace of God, if we are given the ability to use it so, this is a powerful corrective to our own mendacity. This very night. This liturgy, with which we begin the sacred Triduum. This evening, which stands out liturgically for at least three things: the washing of the feet, or “Mandatum,” the stripping of the altar, and the vigil before the Blessed Sacrament at the altar of repose.
When Jesus washed the feet of his beloved disciples, he offered care and hospitality for their sheer humanity. For the useless, honest, embarrassing, mortal dust that clung to their feet, and to his, and to ours. For the weight our feet bear, the miles we walk, the blisters we rub, the actual endurance it takes to measure out every step of the pathway we are on. Our feet are signs of where we have really been. And so very few among us actually enjoy removing our shoes at Mass on a solemn evening like this. It’s very unlikely that we can come to the front of the church and take our seat and have our feet washed without embarrassment, or without feeling a twinge of the deeper need that keep us searching for the love of God. It’s awkward to acknowledge that it takes real humility for clergy to get down on the ground and pick up a towel and move from chair to chair.
But that’s what we do tonight. We force our worship out of its normal constraints. We let it become more physical than is really comfortable for us. We become more candid than we really want to be. Because Jesus has welcomed our humanity, assumed our humanity, nurtured our humanity, and commanded us, if we want to be his disciples, to do this for one another, out of love.
Is truth dead? Or are we increasingly unwilling to acknowledge that we are human beings who need the care of a loving God? And how better to acknowledge that truth than in the sight of our bare feet, all of us together in need of washing? We make this bold acknowledgement--we uncover our feet, tonight—at a Eucharistic banquet. This is a night in which we commemorate the very institution of the Eucharist, and on this very night we are asked to acknowledge the ungainly feet we have been standing on, all our lives.
Why should our deep experience of candor happen at a banquet? Let me suggest that real honesty can only happen in the context of a banquet. All our lives, while we stand and walk on those ungainly feet, we are also imagining that we might really be much greater than we are. We can’t be honest about our own needs and limitations, and so we cook up a fantasy version of ourselves and our place in the world, and we go through life promoting it. We hoard our little supply of self-esteem, hiding what we are from others and from ourselves. And we tell lies. It doesn’t take long before we become full participants in the kind of world you see around us, a gilded world in which truth has somehow become too costly for us to bother with. Education, journalism, the arts, history, science, environmentalism, feeding the hungry: they all become too expensive because we have a fantasy about our personal greatness that we want to maintain at all costs. We have extravagant lies to tell about who we are, and so we have no generosity with which to entertain truth.
And to this hoarding, selfish, humanity, filled with a fear of shortages and shortcomings, Jesus says, “Come and eat. Sit at my table. I will pay the price of my own life to feed you. Receive my body and my blood. If you are my disciples you must learn to do this for one another and for the world.” Jesus does not fear our hunger. He does not shun us. He does not protect himself from suffering at our hands. We, his betrayers, are his welcome guests. He washes our ungainly feet and he feeds our ungainly, self-protecting bodies and souls. Is truth dead, or have we failed to accept that we are guests at the table of our creator? Are we living in untruths and half-truths because we fear that we can never be or have enough within us to face reality? Tonight we come to the table with whatever humility we can muster, to be filled, and to be nudged toward a selfless honesty.
And on this very night, Jesus gives us another gift: the chance to follow him on his own path of self-giving. Just as he has seen our feet, we are blessed to accompany him in his hour of anguish. “Come to the garden and wait with me,” he says to the disciples, and tonight we do our best to accept that invitation, too. We will follow him in the Eucharist, to the altar of repose, and we will do our best to remain with the unbearable truth of his sacrifice. We will pray in silence, with gratitude. We won’t last there forever, we won’t be heroes of prayer, our own shortcomings will be ever before us, but we will offer our thanks and do what we can to stay present before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. We will not fear, tonight, to gaze upon the mystery of a God who chooses the shocking path of crucifixion and the incongruous form of bread in order to be with us.
And, this very night, we will endure the stripping of the altar. Bit by bit, candle by candle, vessel by vessel, we will witness the stripping away of all the signs we use to connote what is holy. We will acknowledge together this night that the language of our worship, the physical manifestation of our reverence, will never give full expression to the mystery of God’s presence among us, to the mystery of the death and resurrection of our Lord. Just as we have peeled away the shoes and socks that hide our feet, so will we peel away the linens that cover our altar of bare stone. And we will not be afraid of this stripping away.
The warmth of tonight’s banquet will still cling to the emptied sanctuary. Bathed in that generous abundance, we will not hesitate to acknowledge emptiness. Washed by our gracious host, we will not fear to acknowledge dust. Loved beyond measure, we will learn, bit by bit, prayer by prayer, year by year, to stop counting the cost of following God on a path of truth. May God bless us as we worship this night, and may our hearts be transformed so that we may follow our God with humble, contrite, and gladdening hearts.
Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson
Maundy Thursday 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia