Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maundy Thrusday Years A,B,C

Maundy Thursday A,B,C 
(Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116: 1,10-17; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The story of God's provision for escape from slavery in Egypt is, in its re-telling,  a renewal of God's original call to Abraham to leave home and start anew in a new place.

The Psalmist alludes to the "cup of rescue," a sacrificial libation poured on the altar in the Temple as a thanksgiving sacrifice.

Paul testifies to the tradition that had been passed to him of a shared sacred meal initiated by the Lord Jesus to remember his death until he comes again.

Unlike the synoptics, John places this supper with his disciples "before the festival of  Passover."  He reshapes generic associations of a shared meal that would naturally include wine and bread and imbues these elements of the meal with new meaning-- the broken bread/body and the poured wine/blood to be shared.

When the early Church took up familiar traditions and symbols and gave them meaning related directly to the death of Jesus, they were continuing an ancient custom. While it is fascinating to trace these iterations of meanings, what must not be lost is the emphasis on taking common, everyday necessities (food and drink) or routines (washing feet in the ancient world) and making them through narrative convey profound meanings. Although they are basic because they are part of daily experience, their interpretation is never completed because through the narrative of the events of the night before Jesus was executed they now allude to the most perplexing conundrums of life: the meaning of sacrifice, death, compassion, forgiveness, new life. As always, the Bible insists that these questions would be overwhelmingly nihilistic were it not for God's initiative, first through God's relationship with Israel and then in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

"The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors," so concludes Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, (San Francisco: Harper, 1941)  Which means, she continues, "We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things."  Finally, "It may be perilous, as it must  be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything."  So, beginning with the scriptures themselves, the church uses the analogies she inherited from the First Testament and creates new metaphors in the Second Testament to interpret that which, ultimately , escapes human definition-- God's ceaseless love.

When Jesus points at "this" bread and "this" cup, he is drawing attention to quite ordinary items with everyday familiarity.  But it is the context that charges his gesture and augments the impact of his words.  He is speaking just before the Passover meal (in the synoptics; as preparations for Passover are being made in John) , when God's people recall the horror and the wonder of that night when death passed over those who had smeared the blood of a sacrificial lamb over their doorways while others, who had not, perished.  And because we are dealing with a text we have already read/heard before, we anticipate the fore-meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus' body and the blood draining out of his body.  But this is not some macabre exercise.  It is in the broader context of the whole mission of Jesus, which was to be the latest iteration of God's love for all humankind.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the meaning of gestures that point at things  depends on the context-- who is pointing, why, what has occurred before this moment and what is about to happen?  In his study, Wittgenstein and Derrida, Henry Staten summarizes Wittgenstein's idea that without context,  pointing at things has no intrinsic meaning.  He quotes from Philosophical Investigations: "It [meaning] would still depend on the circumstances-- that is, on what happened before and after the pointing. (PI35)"  (p.72)

Likewise, when Jesus silently kneels down to perform the menial task of washing the feet of followers, (even one Jesus knows will betray him,) it is within the context of all that occurred before and after this incident in John's narrative that imbues this otherwise trivial act and Jesus' ensuing commandment with such power: "that you should do as I have done to you." 

        This bread I break was once the oat,
        This wine upon a foreign tree
        Plunged in its fruit;
        Man in the day or wind at night
        Laid the crops low, broke the grape's joy.

        Once in this wine the summer blood
        Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
        Once in this bread
        The oat was merrry in the wind;
        Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

       This flesh you break, this blood you let
       Make desolation in the vein,
       Were oat and grape
       Born of the sensual root and sap;
       My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

                                        Dylan Thomas