by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Thursday of Holy Week (the week before Easter) has special meaning for Christians. Often referred to as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum which means "command or instruction"), it is not a “holy day of obligation” for Roman Catholics but often includes a church service commemorating the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was crucified.
The events recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 22, verses 19-20 — in which Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciplines — are said to be the liturgical basis for practicing communion. Many churches offer the Eucharist at a special mass on this day.
Some Roman Catholic priests will perform a rite of foot-washing to commemorate and reflect on Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his twelve disciples. The Gospel of John (13: 1-7) describes this act as a service to others despite your social position, a willingness to be closer to your neighbor. Though normally the task of a servant, Jesus performs this task as the host, despite the protest of his disciples. In doing so he invites them into an intimate fellowship with him, and modeling the behavior he wishes to teach to all humanity:
"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."
Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
Cardinal Roger Mahony washes the feet of 12 people, following the example of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 apostles, during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
In England, a Royal Maundy Service is held on Holy Thursday. During the service, the king or queen gives Maundy money to his or her subjects — one coin for each man and woman equal of the royal’s years of birth.
Queen Elizabeth II (right) distributes the Maundy money to 86 men and 86 women during the Royal Maundy Service at York Minster in York, northern England on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Arthur Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)
In Jerusalem, processions of all sorts take place in the Old City on Holy Thursday.
Roman Catholic clergymen hold candles as they circle the Anointing Stone during the Holy Thursday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on April 5, 2012 ahead of Easter celebrations. Christians traditionally believe the church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor
"Contemplation" (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?
Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.
If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?
To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.
Amy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.Comments
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Photo by John (mtsofan)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sA 2.0
Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return.
The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent — the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent has called Christians to through the centuries.
Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from — even as it continues to endorse — the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”
Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or — forgive the pun — onto solid ground. When we Christians receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future — to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. We could even say: "remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!"
The season of Lent also reveals how relentlessly incarnational is the faith we confess. When Jesus sojourns for 40 days in the wilderness, it is physical hunger (“he was famished”) that the gospel writers make special note of — except in Mark’s version, this year’s lectionary gospel, which is characteristically spare with the particulars. Fasting from food and its physiological consequences are part of Jesus’ quest for wisdom, understanding, and clarity of purpose.
There is an essential unity among body, soul, and the material world. Jesus is not “freed” of his body — nor of his bodily needs and desires — for the sake of his soul. And his soul is not disengaged from the material realm. As Berry notes about scriptural religion generally: “The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.”
In our own time, a relentlessly incarnational Christianity invites reflection on a host of ways that body, spirit, and world interact — ways in which our whole lives and our whole selves are either enriched or impoverished by situations of our own making or circumstances beyond our control. What does it mean, for example, to observe a Lenten fast in the context of social and economic realities like starvation among the poor, increasing food insecurity among the middle class, and growing obesity rates for all of us? How has the formative rhythm of feasting and fasting been obscured, overridden, undone by a culture of excess in which increasingly every meal is a mindless, hastily consumed feast, lacking in both nutrition and conviviality?
Or this: When late in Lent we regard the body of Jesus on the cross, can we see him as he is?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Can we share in poet Mary Karr’s unflinching gaze of a human body abandoned and broken? Can the “sack of flesh” disabuse us of our tendencies to sanitize the scene, fetishize the cross, and spiritualize the meaning of this first-century revolutionary’s death at the hands of the imperial authorities? With theologian James Cone can we see the reciprocity between the crucified Christ and “the lynched black body” of America’s shameful past? A past, Cone reminds us, that is not so past: one-third of all young black men are in prison or somewhere in the “system.” Bodies, again, alas, abandoned and broken.
The ashes we Christians will receive on Wednesday may not convey enough of our connection to soil and stars and our sisters and brothers, but they do have deep associations with sorrow and repentance. The charcoal smudge across the forehead is a public sign that says to all I meet: I have sins to confess, wrongs to right. The challenge is to take this penitence seriously but to “wear” it lightly. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” warns Jesus in the gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. The task of repentance grounds us in the work of serving our neighbors, not ourselves.
The materiality of the faith we confess is most evident in a simple meal shared with friends. Christ’s body — taken, blessed, broken, and shared — makes of his followers a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others, including the earth from which we came and to which we will return. In Lent, we journey with Jesus to the place where his own “sack of flesh” redeems a broken world, revealing God’s love for all of creation, and forever conjoining body and soul, matter and spirit, earth and heaven.
Inset photo by Mandy Jansen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication with the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The administrative dashboard for SOF Observed allows us to see who has liked and reblogged our posts within the Tumblr community. It also allows us to see who “follows” our blog. Our most recent follower, 40 Days 40 Deeds, is a group of folks in four cities across the U.S. who aspire to:
"…make small changes throughout the 2010 Lenten season to encourage people to be kinder, to give more, to inconvenience themselves a little to make the world a more pleasant place to be."
The project is in its beginning stages and I’m already liking it. Their deeds are seemingly inconsequential, but, as Pádraig reminds us, “Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.” These small acts of kindness are really important — offering a ride home to a stranded co-worker few people like, giving your time to be a judge at a history fair, or even just letting that nasty driver budge in front of you during the morning commute — and, perhaps, just might establish new meaningful relationships and lengthen one’s telomeres in the process.
Also, this type of blog picks up on a theme taken up by a pair of Muslims living in New York City last fall. As a way of observing Ramadan, the two men vowed to visit 30 mosques in 30 days during Islam’s holiest month. Not only did they worship regularly, they got to know the many brothers and sisters of all nationalities that make up the Muslim community.
Coupling religious ritual and observance with being a better person and getting to know people — what better way to live out one’s faith and improve one’s self. And, what a great way to notice common threads in many traditions.Comments
by Pádraig Ó Tuama, guest contributor
A is for Alleluia.
A is for Ashes and last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the day when many denominations observe the beginning of Lent — the 40-ish days leading up to the Last Supper, the death of Jesus, the finding of the empty tomb, and the mysterious appearances of Jesus.
Lent comes from the Latin word for Spring. So, it seems that Lent is for Spring.
When I was a small boy, the talk in the class was what you were giving up for Lent — crisps, or lemonade, or, for the radically committed, sweets. Last Tuesday, eating pancakes and lemons, some friends discussed what to give up. We were all agreed: Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.
We make space to contemplate what it is that we will celebrate in 40 days’ time. We make space to recognise our faults. We pray a little more. We allow our emptier stomachs to remind us of the pithiness of our observations in comparison with real hunger. We give more money. We confess. We reconcile. We listen to emptiness for a while. We do not say Alleluia.
This Ash Wednesday, I went to Clonard Monastery between work meetings. There were workmen, nurses, office people, people in tracksuits, children, teenagers, young, old. We lined up and had ashes, made from the burnt palms of last year’s jubilant celebration of Palm Sunday, smeared on our foreheads with the words “Turn away from sin and return to the Gospel”. After Mass, I walked from the Catholic Falls Road through the city centre into the Protestant Donegall Pass. I wiped the ash from my head, aware of offence and violence.
This year, I have been a sometimes-absent, sometimes-silent friend. I have been bad at communication. Good intentions, frankly, have not been enough. Decisions about what charity to give to have resulted in distraction, not action.
I am hoping that empty space will create something for me. I am giving up eating anything between meals. Three square a day for me. And, pithy as it seems, I am also giving up sweet things. Hard core for me this Lent.
On Holy Thursday, the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle in the church. We attend the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, reminding ourselves of the emptying of God by God. We remember the descent of our tortured and abandoned brother into Hell. We allow emptiness to create hope.
A friend of mine told me a month ago that he’s been diagnosed as HIV positive. Another friend is in the gut-clenching grip of heartbreaking decisions. Someone is unemployed. Someone is lonely. And I am hoping that Lent will create a bit of space for me to commit my time, my body, and what love I can give. Such resolutions will not, please God, end with an Easter celebration, when a fire will be lit outside the monastery and we will process into the church with springtime candles lit from that same fire.
A is for Allel…
Mr. Ó Tuama, originally from Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland doing chaplaincy and community work, mostly through the Corrymeela Community and the Irish Peace Centres. Part of his community work involves writing poetry to encapsulate some of the stories of living and dying in the context of the Irish conflict.
He submitted this essay through our First Person Outreach page. Submit yours too.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I’ve been skeptical about celebrity pet charity projects and rock stars like Bono who have endorsed the RED campaign — encouraging people to shop and buy stuff in order to aid impoverished Africans. It just rings hollow to me and somewhat paradoxical, even though I recognize the good intentions behind it.
And then I read these lines from his op-ed this weekend:
It’s Lent I’ve always had issues with. I gave it up … self-denial is where I come a cropper. My idea of discipline is simple — hard work — but of course that’s another indulgence.
Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter.
—Bono, lead singer of U2
Whatever brash generalizations or dismissive attitude I may have held, that changed after reading the Irishman’s contemplative words. Even though the rest of his essay is much more poetic and eloquent, it’s that second sentence above that captured me. He recognizes the falsehood of working harder. That staying at work is often an escape, a source of leisure rather than fulfilling one’s obligations and roles of responsibility at home — the mundane tasks of being present while one’s children ask for your time or hiding behind a gadget rather than engaging your spouse. Here, the man is revealing something of himself, his ordinary self. He is speaking to something greater than his own ego — and mine.
Nearly two years ago, I enjoyed Bono’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast with President Bush. Like many others, I admired the way he was reaching out; yet, his words felt removed to me — a diplomatic performance to unite disparate parties.
But, his reflection in this essay starts from his personal core. They reveal a man who is a seeker of some greater truths, both personal and universal, that have a grounding in fallibility and transcendence. And that I respect greatly.
I can only hope that Krista could interview him for SOF. Perhaps at Trinity Wall Street? Wouldn’t that be an incredible event to witness? The likelihood is minimal, but it would be a dazzling adventure. Can anybody make it happen?!Comments