Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Human beings are prisoners of time. Speaking theologically, I’m not sure whether to attribute that to God’s intention in creation, or to our fall into sin. But whichever it is, we cannot exist without reference to the past, the present, and the future. The mystery of time, this fundamental human experience, is something we can neither fully comprehend nor transcend. We don’t understand time, and we certainly can’t break free of it. Of course, this doesn’t keep us from fantasizing. Any new book that is well-written, any new movie that is well-made, and includes the theme of time-travel, is bound to be popular.

We also process the mystery of time in more subtle ways. Those of my generation, those who came of age between the mid-‘60s and the mid-‘70s, will remember a film called The Big Chill. It was about a group of thirty-somethings—which is what we were when the movie came out—who had all hung out with one another when they were in college getting back together for a sort of house party over several days. As I recall, it sent a whole bunch of American Baby Boomers into a nostalgic funk over the mystery of the passage of time. Now, of course, that same group is staring old age in the face, so we have even more to be mystified by. There is the past, there is the present, and there is the future, and we can’t break free from those categories.  

We can’t break free, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. The most basic attempt at transcending time is through the mind. With memory, we can revisit the past, and because our memories are not perfect, we can sometimes even clean up annoying details that didn’t come out quite right the first time. And with imagination, we can journey to the future—or, at least, a future—and check out the possibilities. But memories fade, and imaginations fail, so we resort to written records—diaries and journals—and audio recordings and photographs and home videos and the like. We also celebrate birthdays and other anniversaries of all sorts of events, both joyful and sorrowful. Perhaps the most serious attempt at transcending time is demonstrated by those Civil War re-enactments that take place on or near the sites of the original battlefields, and in places like Springfield, where the dominant character of the Civil War is a homegrown cottage industry. I’ve never been to one of these events, but I’ve talked to people who have firsthand knowledge of them, and let me tell you, this is not a game! These people have an ability to stay “in character” even when they’re off the battlefield. It’s actually kind of spooky.

But, try as we might, even when we go to extraordinary lengths to get all the period details of costume, weaponry, and behavior right, there remains a basic barrier that we simply cannot cross. We might be able to fool ourselves pretty convincingly, but we cannot actually transcend, we cannot break free of, the prison of time. We are captive to the moment, and irrevocably alienated from both the past and the future. And that’s why what we’re doing tonight, and tomorrow night, and the next night, is of such critical importance. In these strange activities known as the Paschal Triduum, we are transcending time; we are breaking free of the present and glimpsing Eternity. It might seem like we are merely trying to evoke mental images of certain historical events: the upper room tonight —with the washing of feet and the Last Supper—the Crucifixion tomorrow night, and the Resurrection on Saturday night. With some of what we do—actual feet getting actually wet tonight, kneeling at the foot of an actual cross tomorrow, keeping vigil in a dark and tomb-like silence on Saturday night—we may seem, I suppose, more akin to the Civil War re-enactors. But, in fact, we are doing much more than that. The power—indeed, the very nature—of liturgy and sacrament is to transcend time and space. Liturgy and sacrament set us free from our temporal prison, and enable us to benefit from what Jesus did in that Upper Room just as much as the twelve apostles who were actually gathered there with him. The people who have their feet washed tonight are not being served by Dan Martins or Bob Brodie, as much as it may appear so; they are being served by Jesus the Son of God. When we celebrate the Eucharistic Banquet, the host will not be Dan Martins, or even Daniel, Bishop of Springfield, as much as it may appear so; the host will be that same Jesus who took bread and wine and made them the vessels of his own life-giving self-offering.

We are not commemorating or re-enacting historical events; we are participating in them. And the mystery in which we are participating is none other than the redemption of the universe —a universe that, most assuredly, includes each one of us. In word and water and moistened feet, in solemn prayer over broken bread and poured out wine, we are acquiring first-hand experience of the ferocious love of God, a love that will never let go of us. We are allowing ourselves to be conformed to the shape of the cross—being made one with Christ in his sufferings, that we may be made like him in his resurrection. We are sharing in the righting of that which is wrong, the re-membering of that which is dis-membered, the making whole of that which is torn apart.

For me, one of the most moving moments in Mel Gibson’s film of a few years ago, The Passion of the Christ, was when Jesus, bearing his heavy cross along the Way of Sorrows, catches sight of his mother. Their eyes meet, and he seems to be momentarily revived by a burst of energy. He says to her, “Look, Mother, I make all things new!” My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, a movie scene like that can be very powerful, and call to our minds the enormous scale of the work that our Lord accomplished in his Passion. But it’s only a movie, and we can get no closer to it than our seat is from the screen. It is only in the solemn liturgy of the Paschal Triduum that we can walk through that movie screen and into the action and take our place alongside Jesus and Mary, and, indeed, alongside Simon of Cyrene as he participates with Jesus in bearing the cross that represents nothing other than the sum total of the sin of the world and the evil of the universe. Look! Jesus is making all things new. And we are there with him. Amen.

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