At the heart of Holy Week are the "Three Holiest Days." These are known as the Triduum Sacrum: Sacred (Holy) Three Days. Those days are Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Christian holy days, like those of the Jewish tradition, follow a lunar pattern. That pattern includes the days being measured from sundown to sundown. Technically, Maundy Thursday began at sundown Wednesday evening. As I write this, it is early afternoon of Maundy Thursday (1:30pm, Thursday, 3/28/13). Good Friday begins at sundown this evening. Because our world cultures now most all use a solar calendar, this liturgical thinking can seem a bit confusing. I have been doing it for 38 years (since the beginning of seminary) professionally. Just as six years in the U.S. Navy taught me to think in a 24 hour clock, I think in ecclesiastical liturgical time almost exclusively (I can also think in both metric and traditional weights and measures, but that's another story....science).
"Maundy" is the Anglicized name for the Latin word "Mandatum." It literally means, "command" or "instruction by authority." We use the word "mandate" in common parlance to mean the same thing.
The origin of this word in Holy Week reflects the actions of the first of the Holy Three Days. Jesus did three things:
- Washed his disciples' feet (serve)
- Shared the Chaburah with the statements "Do this in remembrance of me" (Eucharist)
- Told his followers to "watch with me" in the Garden (Pray)
In the time of Jesus, the washing of feet was a truly nasty job. In almost every Jewish home, as one entered, he/she would remove sandals and sit on a stool to wash their feet. There were no city sewers, and hygiene on streets and paths was practically non-existent. In wealthier homes, a servant was employed to wash the feet of guests, as they arrived for an event. It was an "entry level" task (it is where we get that term, btw)...the most menial form of service in a household or public building.
Sundown on what we now call Thursday marked the beginning of the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which coincided with the sabbath (our Saturday), in the year of Jesus' crucifixion. It was customary to have a meal with friends and family...the first-feast of the Day of Passover. That meal was called a Chaburah. It was the meal at which Jesus gathered his disciples in an upstairs room. It is quite probable that, in addition to the Twelve core disciples, other men and women were present...family almost assuredly.
At the beginning of this meal, Jesus took off his outer garment (tunic), hiked up is undergarment (what we call an albus), and wrapped a serving towel around his waist. With a large bowl and pitcher of water, he began washing the feet of each of the disciples. The Teacher (Rabboni) functioning as the most menial house-servant to his students....totally scandalous and unheard of! Peter protested most loudly and with great indignation that Jesus would stoop to this task.
Jesus...whom I imagine looking up at Peter with some kind of slight smile but being very sanguine...said to Peter, "If you do not let me do this, you have no part of me..." He went on to tell everyone that to be first, one must be servant of all...no servant is greater than the master.
To be in community means to engage life with humility, respect and a kind of love that is great enough to "get dirty" for another...meeting them where they are. These are acts of agape...Grace...Divine Love.
This word, Eucharist, means Thanksgiving. It is the name given by the Apostolic community to describe the Chaburah meal that Jesus shared that evening. While, in many ways, the Last Supper of Jesus (as many have come to call this meal), was quite typical of what Jews throughout Israel were doing at that same time, Jesus took a departure from what was normal. He introduced words that were not part of the script of this event. Here are the marks:
- He took bread
- He broke the bread
- He blessed the bread
- Gave it to his friends, saying
- "Do this for the remembrance of me."
- He did the same with the cup, as he did with the bread.
We miss the meaning of a key word used by Jesus: remembrance.
In Greek (as well as Aramaic), there are two terms for "remember." The one Jesus used in his words was anamnesis. This word literally means, "to bring together again"... or actually to "re-member" (reassemble the members).
This can be taken several ways. In my tradition (Anglicanism), we call it Real Presence. It is the essential mystery in the midst of this action: Jesus is saying, in essence, "whenever you do this I will come among you." As we understand our nature as being created in the image of God, it is the place, deep within our being, where the Divine...Jesus...encounters us. That is why we call Eucharist and Baptism the Dominical Sacraments. They are foundational and given to us directly by Jesus. Sacrament is the outward sign of an inward Grace: bread and wine...Presence of Christ.
[Side note: for those who want to test the scholarship of the origin of Eucharist, I invite you to carefully read these scholars: Dom Gregory Dix, Josef Jungmann and Louis Bouyer. Also, in the Chaburah meal, the prayer over bread comes first; followed by the wine. In the Passover Meal, the wine is blessed first; followed by the bread].
So, the second mandate is for us to be in holy fellowship with one another...to be a realized community.
After the meal, Jesus and his group repair to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is here that Jesus prepares for what will come next. As he moved apart to pray, he specifically asked his core disciples to "Watch with me." In Aramaic, the word "watch" is very much akin to a time of contemplation. In John's Gospel, this close-in disciple relates a lengthy prayer discourse that entreats God to provide the Grace of equipping the disciples to take the next steps. In this, Jesus expresses the agony of what will be coming upon him...betrayal, denial, scourging, mocking and a gruesome death.
In two of the Gospel narratives, Jesus does some walking around and finds the disciples closest to him falling asleep. "Can you not watch with me even one hour?!" Be open. Pray. Go inward. Listen. Receive. Remain alert
Implications for Now
Walking through these Holy Three Days is hard for us in the modern era. First, our culture no longer breaks from normal work to allow folks to engage these days. Second, many non-liturgical churches do nothing beyond a Good Friday gathering between Palm Sunday and Easter Day. Third, the intensity of living this experience...even in solemn liturgy...is simply more than a lot of folks can handle. We speak of "charges" regarding places of ego pain, memory and fear with which we simply don't want to sit. These holy days are like electricity on raw nerves for many. Our culture has taught us: 'if you can't deal with it, run from it...or at least avoid it at all costs.'
The average 1.5 hours of a good Palm Sunday liturgy is about all that folks seem to be able to handle. Then, we hope like crazy Easter gets here before we have to think any more deeply. Or, let's go have some fun between Palm Sunday and Easter Day.
Okay, it's the reality we currently inherit and create for ourselves. While much of the world is not Christian...or in a liturgical Christian tradition, all spiritual traditions that I know about have a journey through abdication, denial, fear and a kind of death experience before coming into a full relationship with the Holy One. Every spiritual tradition of which I have knowledge also has a meal that is shared and kinds of service to one another that are acts of humility.
The Native Americans (Lakota language here) have a saying that is used whenever prayer is said, people gather, and the sacred engaged: Mitakuye Oyasin...All our Relations (We are all One). Jesus said, "May they be one as you and I are One." Buddhists and Hindus say, Namaste...The Divine in me sees (honors) the Divine in you (we are one).
Maundy Thursday reminds us that we are connected to one another and the Great Mystery...the transcendent God. It invites surrender. It asks us to stop and contemplate the mysteries that make us uniquely human. It invites us to see the Divine in one another...to let go of our ego and pre-disposition to judge and create artificial boundaries, or castes. It invites the creation of sustainable community (i.e. "commonality").
Someone might wish to say, "but, but, what you just said sounds like socialism." Right, that's a fear word. All I am saying is what 38 years worth of Holy Weeks have said to me in my tradition. Sit with that charge a bit. Watch for an hour.
Love and Blessings,