Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Christian Year - A Cycle

It's Maundy Thursday - foot washing and altar stripping evening service - perhaps one of the most important Christian liturgies. Humbling ourselves to kneel at ground level and wash the dirty, dust-covered feet of people we may not even know - serving others. We may look up into their eyes; we may focus on the uniqueness of each foot and the variety of creation. We may be silently praying or reflecting on how much we value ourselves.

But this is a night of celebration really. It was Passover, a seder meal celebrating the Hebrews' safe flight from Egypt where they had been slaves. They ate and had some sort of ritual, maybe like the current Jewish Seder, maybe not. But, Jesus put a new twist on it. He took water and washed the feet of his companions as a symbolic gesture of servitude, his putting others before himself. As usual Peter got excited and rebelled, then acquiesced and went overboard with the idea of being washed. I imagine Jesus just kept washing feet.

So, we wash others' feet, symbolic of our servitude and our love of Jesus.

Then, after re-enacting Jesus' action, we take away all the articles of church-hood: we strip the altar and the sacred space of all traces of Christianity. We take away the crosses or cover them with black or red cloth. We remove the candles. We roll up the clean white linen that covers the altar. We remove the decorative coverings of the lector's stand and the Bible. No flowers. No incense. No bread and wine waiting on the table. No vessels. And, then we lower the lights and read Psalm 55 together. The lights go out, and we are left in darkness. "Jesus done left Chicago"...and all Episcopal churches on Maundy Thursday night. The one we believed would save the world has gone, and we, humble in our servitude, are left to carry on.

The disciples hid after Jesus' arrest and were very afraid after his crucifixion. We cannot hide. Most of us will go to work on Friday. The celebration is over. Most of us await the Feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate on Sunday. Our lives go on between Thursday night and Sunday morning. Symbolically, Jesus is not here nor with you or you or you. Jesus is gone. The Saviour is dead. Buried. Smelly and decaying body is all that is left.

This is part of the cycle of the Christian year that began in late November with Advent - the awaiting of the birth of the Christ Child. It's all symbolism. We can have the crucifixion any day of the year without waiting for the church cycle. We can wash feet any time you wish. No calendar is needed to be Christian. Our life events that correspond to the Jesus narrative don't occur on any fixed schedule. If the co-pay on a needed operation is more than we can afford, it's Black Friday, and we hope for Sunday and the resurrection. If a baby is born, it's Christmas and we celebrate with gifts and thanksgiving.

If we choose to follow the church calendar, then we will be in rituals throughout this Holy Week. After Sunday, we will take a little holiday from our efforts. If we choose not to follow the church calendar, then we can celebrate the Seder now with good food, music and dancing. We can save the mourning for times when we sorrow for the evils of life. We can ignore the crucifixion this month or we can live as though Jesus is truly gone. The Feast of the Resurrection is our hope that we can be humble while doing great things as we follow Jesus. But, this church calendar stuff is arbitrary...a schedule fixed by the church bosses long ago. Our lives aren't as neat as this cycle. So mourn tonight if mourning is your time. Dance tonight if dancing is your time. Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything, but it didn't say that all our times would coincide. So, I'm doing my rejoicing on Maundy Thursday. I'll mourn when the times call for it. But, I'll keep the Feast of the Resurrection always in my heart - for hope is life.