The great three days...
NOTE: As we enter the Great Three Days, I shared this note with my congregation...
Today is Maundy Thursday - Holy Thursday in some traditions - the start of the Great Three Days of Holy Week for all Christians in the Western tradition. For the past 40 days many of us have been on pilgrimage with Jesus as he heads toward Jerusalem and the Cross. We have studied and prayed, we have looked for gentle ways to share more compassion, too. We have confirmed our teens, celebrated Holy Communion together every week and tried to get our hearts ready for Holy Week. And if you are anything like me, by about this time in Lent you realize two things:
+ First, no matter how hard we try, the power of the Lord's passion is always greater than our ability to comprehend. We are so easily distracted while Christ remains steadfast. We had the best intentions when Lent began, but somewhere along the way we lost sight of them while Jesus continued towards the Garden of Gethsemane.
+ Second, some of us will become discouraged by how easily we lose touch with our Lenten commitments and others will decide there is no point to observing a Holy Lent because it is so hard - but that is the point of our Lenten disciplines: when we honestly own how hard it is to remain steadfast, we begin to accept that our journey into grace by faith is about God coming to us rather than achieving holiness or "nirvana" on our own steam.
We live in a "type A" world where striving and success are the high marks. But Lent turns all of that upside down and says: No matter how hard you try, you won't get it right. Peter will deny me. Everyone will fall away. The religious and political authorities will use their gifts to kill me. And the whole of creation will despair. So pay attention: this is what it looks like when you live life all on your own. There is denial and betrayal, there is death and fear and emptiness. So are you tired of doing the same old things every year and expecting different results? Are you worn out by trying to make everything work out right and still failing on your face or hitting bottom? Why not come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden - and I will give you rest. This is the message of the Great Three Days:
+ Maundy Thursday: Jesus washes the feet of his disciples - he takes on the role as servant and slave - and tells them: this is my new commandment, you are to love one another as I have just loved you. On your knees. In humility. Without any hope of reward. At 7 pm tonight we remember this part of the pilgrimage and close our gathering in silence and darkness. It is a time of symbolically waiting with Jesus in the garden before he is taken by the authorities to the Cross.
+ Good Friday: after a religious and political trial, Jesus is condemned to death - an agonizing, degrading and ugly death - and all we can do is stand and watch. In a word we are confronted with our own powerlessness. The wisdom of this time of worship is to embrace our powerlessness - when we are truly empty, God can fill us with grace and new strength - so we gather to watch and wait. This year there are two times when we will do this: a) Friday @ 1 pm we will watch and wait together in the streets of Pittsfield starting at First Baptist Church. And b) @ 7 pm we will gather in our Sanctuary for a musical meditation on our powerlessness and complicity using contemporary music and art. (NOTE: this year's presentation is particularly powerful and beautiful and I hope you will make and effort to join us. Our friends from Zion Lutheran, First Baptist and South Congregational will be joining us.)
+ Easter Sunday - the Feast of the Resurrection - at 10:30 am: At the heart of Easter Sunday is God's grace that comes into the world by love - not by any of our work or striving - a love which raises Jesus from death into new life. Indeed, all we can do is respond with joy and bewilderment. We can sing songs of gratitude and join together at the Lord's table of feasting and all of that will happen.
The new Roman Catholic Pope, Francesco I, put it like this at a recent public address:
In Holy Week we live the highest point of this journey, this loving plan that runs throughout the entire history of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus enters Jerusalem to take the final step, in which His whole live is summarized: He gives Himself totally, He keeps nothing for Himself, not even His life. At the Last Supper, with His friends, He shares the bread and distributes the chalice "for us." The Son of God is offered to us, He consigns His Body and his Blood into our hands to be with us always, to dwell among us. And on the Mount of Olives, as in the trial before Pilate, He puts up no resistance, He gifts Himself: He is the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah, who stripped himself unto death (cf. Is 53:12).
Jesus does not live this love that leads to sacrifice passively or as a fatal destiny; certainly He does not hide His deep human commotion in the face of a violent death, but He entrusts Himself with full confidence to the Father. Jesus voluntarily consigned Himself to death to respond to the love of God the Father, in perfect union with His will, to demonstrate His love for us. On the Cross, Jesus "loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Each of us can say, "He loved me and gave Himself for me." Everyone can say that "for me".
What does this mean for us? It means that this is my, your, our path. Living Holy Week following Jesus not only with the emotions of the heart; living Holy Week following Jesus means learning how to come out of ourselves: to reach out to others, to go to the outskirts of existence, to be the first to move towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are most distant, those who are forgotten, those who are most in need of understanding, consolation and help. There is so much need to bring the living presence of Jesus, merciful and full of love! Living Holy Week means increasingly entering into God's logic, the logic of the Cross, which is not first of all that of pain and death, but of love and of self-giving that brings life. It means entering into the logic of the Gospel. Following, accompanying Christ, remaining with Him requires a "stepping outside."
These are beautiful, demanding, full and unsettling liturgies: my prayers are with all who will be leading worship and all who choose to participate, too. May we be emptied that we might be filled with grace by faith.