In the wake of a powerfully intense Holy Week, I am drinking tea and indulging in rich, meandering conversations. I am letting myself rest. But even as I offer space for the exhaustion of Church Work During Holy Week, I sense the ways in which I have been fed, made new, brought a little closer to whole by the journey. Boundaries were surrendered, yet much was gained. I trust that those of you who made space to move through the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter) came away with this sense as well. And I write – for those present and not, familiar and not – to share a sense of the undertaking. Because whatever your faith – however tethered to or skeptical of Christian doctrine you are in this moment – the stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture.
Maundy Thursday is when the church remembers the Last Supper. This includes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, offering them and us a new mandate to “love one another” (John 13:34). The liturgy ends with the stripping of the sanctuary, which reminds us of the empty cell into which Jesus is put for the night; enacts the stark reality of Good Friday; portrays the barrenness we fear in death; performs a kind of letting go; and reminds us that the Body of Christ was stripped. And yet here’s what most startles: whole communities come together and wash each other’s feet. They stand in a sacred place, take off their socks, and gather. They kneel before one another: strangers, friends, acquaintances, clergy, staff, children, parents. And one by one, they take bare foot in hand and cup water in palm. Whether you’re washing or being washed, it is a strange and vulnerable moment. It is awkward and humbling. We expose feet. We allow that covered part of ourselves to be held by another, to be loved. It takes surrender. And it changes us.
This year, our deacon preached about mandates: his own to the parents of his pediatric patients, and Jesus’s to us. He said: mandates are bossy, but sometimes they’re right. Sometimes it’s right to tell a parent she should stay with her child. Sometimes it’s right to tell us to love. Sometimes it’s right to tell one another what to do. And so – with the Ubi Caritas filling the space around us – I washed a parishioner’s feet. And at first I felt all the usual insecurities: I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right. You know these voices, right? Then I remembered the deacon’s words about mandates and the love that Jesus calls us to in this story. And I thought that kneeling there – foot in one hand and water cupped in the other – I couldn’t fail at that. I couldn’t fail at loving. I kneeled down and loved the woman whose foot I held through the awkwardness and the boundaries I had to put down to do so. The mandate is that we love. And it sets us free because it means we get to let everything else go in deference. And in letting those old stories go – I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right – I discovered new wells of love. For the woman whose feet I was washing. For myself. For God. And it isn’t that it stopped being awkward; it’s that the awkwardness made it possible to get to that discovery: the letting go of my own sense of failure and the taking up of Jesus’s trust in me. Trust that I can love as he loved. And then I did.
Good Friday commemorates Jesus’s suffering and death. The altar is bare, having been stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The same people who only the day before kneeled down before feet and water now read the story of Jesus’s arrest, indictment, and crucifixion. The words of the angry (fearful) crowd would resonate with anyone in the room who is discomforted by oppression, by history’s incessant grasping for power. In The Heart of Christianity, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg argues that:
this is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus. This is also the political meaning of Easter: Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his vision, and God’s ‘no’ to the domination system….Thus the cross…indicts the domination systems of this world. Good Friday and Easter have a political meaning, even as they are also more than political. Indeed, it is striking how much of our religious language was, in the first century, theo-political language. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.
Together, as we read aloud the words of the frightened, human, unconscious oppressors, we at once collectively own our complicity in the systems of oppression that live on in our day, and rend our clothes in mourning over (if we’re following Jesus’s mandate) not just Christ’s unjust death, but the countless unjust deaths of history, and the countless unjust deaths to come. The oppression we enact on Good Friday is timeless.
Indeed, this Good Friday our priest moved us backwards from the story of the ruling party’s attempted destruction of Jesus to that of his birth, which this year we celebrated only three short months ago. And recalling that new baby in the face of his eventual persecution (re)made fully human the man on the cross. And here’s the magical part: feeling his humanity made all those lives lost to injustice – all those lives we manage to ignore – fully human as well. And the act of seeing those lives made us fully human in turn. In Precarious Life, American philosopher and theorist Judith Butler asks if there might be something:
gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence….If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? [Because] to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.
Though the idea of vulnerability as a critical and misunderstood resource is currently of interest to theorists – and was the basis for my doctoral dissertation – I have never before seen it played out in a community setting. I’ve seen it function in the theoretical and in the personal, but never in the communal. But when we placed flowers on the cross this Good Friday, we did so with mournful eyes open to much that it would be easier not to know: that these precarious human lives are sacred and worthy, and that our most devastating failure is letting ourselves forget that. And in that space, together, we didn’t forget. Even if just for awhile. And it is fascinating to wonder what would happen if we all stopped forgetting, all together. What that might yield, even if we only did it for a day.
The Great Vigil of Easter is the church’s celebration of the resurrection. It’s when we’re granted the impossible grace to move through the suffering we looked squarely in the eye on Good Friday and into, to recall Borg’s words, “God’s ‘yes.'” Into Jesus’s forgiveness of his persecutors. Into an alternative to power-hunger and intimacy-avoidance and vulnerability-fear. Into an abandonment of the myth of sovereignty. Into the empty tomb. It’s when we’re offered the space to imagine what might come from our willingness to love as God loves. And in that way, it functions as radical cultural resistance.
We are sold versions of life everyday: versions that are expensive; that cost us the ability to see one another; that teach us to long for power and wealth over grace and compassion. Barrett Lee, who preached at this year’s vigil, writes that in contemporary American culture:
[we] are inundated with a relentless onslaught of guarantees and certainties from advertising slogans, political campaigns, and religious ideologies. And each time one promise collapses under its own weight and proves itself to be a lie, another one is waiting to jump up and take its place. Each ideological idol promises to give us the world, if only we will bow down and worship its golden image. Faith, in this context, is the ability to question these promises, doubt these certainties, and refuse to bend the knee to anything less than the mystery of God’s own self.
Gathered together on this night – telling this sacred, mysterious story that has been handed down to us; having been reminded in the days before of Jesus’s mandate to love; having recalled our own tragic yet deeply human ability to ignore and even induce the suffering of others – we refuse the golden image. We bend down only to mystery and miracle. We remember that Christianity is not:
preserved in unchangeable dogmas, but is passed down as a story told in poetry and prophecy, in water and oil and light, in bread and wine.
The stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture. This is so because the Triduum is an invitation to embrace – even if only for three short days – our own precariousness, and that of others. To imagine what it is to live with the mandate of loving held high above all other demands. To look human cruelty squarely in the eye not as a way of vilifying ourselves and one another, but in an effort to understand. To see. To suffer alongside, and recognize, and uphold, and surrender, and love.
On Easter morning, in the wake of all this, our priest offered these lines from the R.S. Thomas poem “The Answer”:
There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
The Triduum works this way, rolling away the artifices of death and power and violence – of destructive cultural conditioning and stagnant questions – and leaving us gathered, in community, around “the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.” And it is almost impossibly sweet to imagine what we, together, might go on to do in its wake.