It was a simple text message exchange that finally caused me to break down. It started with a text from a very dear friend who I normally see every few days, and who after a week of keeping calm and carrying on finally conceded “isolation not good.” To which I responded, equally bluntly, “missing your hugs”. It was my first honest acknowledgement aside from the professional changes happening around me of my personal vulnerability and loss in all of this. I miss being held by a dear close friend. I miss sitting round a meal table with people I love. I miss the playful jostling at the lifeboat station, the reassuring touch on the arm when someone senses my pain or when I want to reach out to someone I care for. The tears streamed down my face.
Maundy Thursday is always a painful day in the life of the church. It’s a day we look in the eye our capacity for betrayal of one another and even of God as we recall the night when Jesus was handed over to be crucified. But it’s also a day when we’re offered the deepest imaginable gift. Amidst the dangers and fears of the world, Jesus shows us the way to love. On the night when he knows his life hangs in the balance he takes a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. He breaks bread and shares it with his disciples, including the one he knows is about to hand him over to his death.
Yet overnight all these expressions of closeness and of care have been flagged as sources of danger. As I write this with coronavirus still building to its peak in this country, I can hear myself screaming out the perils of what happened that night. Touching someone else without protective gloves and masks! Sitting closer than two metres apart from people who are not members of your own household! Sharing a common cup and breaking bread! Suddenly all the ways in which we routinely build up our fellowship and reach out in love have been identified as potential sources of danger to our very lives. No wonder the tears flow.
But look again at the story. “One who dips his bread in the dish with me will betray me” says Jesus, shortly before that same individual does indeed betray him with – of all the classic outward expressions of love – a kiss. Already within the narrative of this night, the ways in which we learn to express love and fellowship are undermined. The one who dips his bread into the bowl to betray looks outwardly identical to the one who does so to build up fellowship. The one who kisses to destroy looks outwardly identical to the one who kisses to nurture. An outsider looking into the scene could not tell at a glance which reaches out in love and which carries destruction in their hearts.
“Missing your hugs” read my message. We’re built for physical connectedness, and even for my generation the computer screen and the telephone cannot begin to replace the presence of a loved one. Yet Judas betrays with bread and wine and with a kiss. The touch and the connection can only express what lives deep within our hearts for good or ill.
Today, tomorrow and on into the third day of our walk through Holy Week our hearts will be exposed and challenged to grow in this time of global crisis and individual sorrow. There is a new claim on our love, our faithfulness, our self discipline, our courage in way that is wholly new to my generation and perhaps evokes memories for those of you who remember previous times of crisis.
I pray that in this time of trial as we walk with Jesus our hearts may be refined and our peace deepened, so that when our community life is restored, with our social activities and our altar and our freedom to hold once more those who are dear to us, our words and deeds may be wholly expressive of the love that has blossomed in such abundance.
Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross; grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“So much wrong and so much injustice” written by John Bell, sung by Livy Lewis, copyright Iona Community, used under CCLI 438169.
So much wrong and so much injustice
so you shouldered a wooden cross.
Now like you, my best dreams are shattered.
All I know is the weight of loss.
My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can you be found?
You drank deep of the cup of suffering and your death is our holy ground.
Olive trees showed the pain of sorrow:
They were grieving for their Lord.
Round Jerusalem the hills were mourning
as the city denied its God.
No fine song, no impressive music
can attempt to relieve my heart.
In this hour I am called to grieving
Lest no other will play this part.
Everything I could ever offer
could not pay for what God has done.
But my life shall be spent in honour
of my Saviour, God’s only Son.