The following is the welcome and prayer, with which I began our Maundy Thursday service. My attempt was to highlight how we have experienced in the last year a lot of similar feelings to those Jesus went through on his journey between the last supper and the cross. The rest of the evening was filled with scripture readings, short meditations on the last year in pandemic, music, and communion.
Good evening. Welcome to Hutterthal Mennonite Church, to our Maundy Thursday service, a time that we gather to remember and experience the final hours of our savior and king Jesus before he was arrested and then crucified. We take these moments together to eat bread and drink juice together as Jesus did with his disciples that last evening, that last supper. You might be thinking, what will I see and hear tonight? You will hear lone voices, calling out from the darkness, from the wilderness of our Lenten journey. The voices of friends and neighbors will express for us all what we have not been able to say and maybe more than what we have felt like we can or should say.
Before I say more though, I will lead you through a short centering exercise. First, close your eyes and find your point of stability, whatever that physical detail is that is keeping you planted. It might be the feeling of the soles of your feet supported by the floor or the pew underneath you, holding you up or your hands resting on your lap or the balls of your feet pushing into the floor. Focusing on whatever that point of stability is in this moment, take several deep breaths, noticing the inhaling of the spirit or breath and the exhaling of the fear or anxiety or worry or feeling that you entered this space with. Breath in… breath out. Breath in… breath out. If at any point during this service, you find yourself overwhelmed, take a minute to use this exercise to help center you. Also, if you find yourself at a point, in which you need to remove yourself from this space, please know that you are allowed to do so with no judgment or criticism.
Now, let us notice, examine, and reflect on the space around us. We note the bread and cup front and center in our space, a reminder that soon, Jesus’s body will be broken and blood shed unjustly by Jewish and Roman authorities. We take these moments together to remember all of those in our collective past who have been unjustly accused and tried by the powers of the state. We remember that our anabaptist forefathers were victims of such state-sanctioned violence too. We pray this evening for all of those followers of Jesus right now who are being persecuted. We feel this sense of persecution and ostracism as well in this deeply polarized political time in America. Whether we choose to wear masks or not, whether we sing in church or not, whether we shake hands or not, whether we meet in each other’s homes or not, we all feel the ways that our actions have been criticized, misunderstood, judged, or feared by our friends, neighbors, and church members. We name the difficulty and frustration in trying to live true to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to God in the midst of conflicting opinions and alternative viewpoints. The political turmoil of the first century also created the perfect storm that led to the crucifixion and suffering of Jesus.
We note the bowl of water also next to the bread and cup, a reminder of what true and sacrificial leadership look like. Knowing full well that one disciple was going to betray him and the others were going to desert him, Jesus loved his disciples to the very end, washing their feet as a servant or host would for his guests. We are all guests at this last supper, sitting at the table with Jesus and the disciples, taking in the final moments with our savior before he is taken away. We notice also that just as Jesus was taken suddenly and his followers scattered by his arrest, we felt this same sense of loss when the world was turned upside-down just over a year ago with the onset of the pandemic. The world stopped in so many ways, and even now, we are still feeling the repercussions of those first moments of March and April 2020. We acknowledge that we are tired of hearing about restrictions and news and tests and positives and COVID. We find it difficult to continue to think sacrificially and humbly as Jesus did in these last moments because we are ready to move on, to stop thinking and talking about it. When will this finally be over? I wonder if the disciples thought the same thing as Jesus’s trial carried on through the night into the next day.
We note the withering and drying palm branches at the foot of the cross. We are reminded that it was only a few days ago that crowds were shouting Hosanna and laying their palm branches and cloaks on the road as Jesus rode into Jerusalem like a king. The excitement and anticipation were palpable then, but something is different this night as the disciples sit with their teacher for the last time. The anticipation has dried up as Jesus speaks of a broken body, shed blood, and betrayal. Our lives in the midst of pandemic have felt like they are withering and drying up. We sit confused like the disciples did then, wondering what sense we can make of cheering and excitement one moment, and not too much later, of betrayal and grief the next. The attempts to make sense of it all grew wearisome as Jesus’s road to the cross becomes more and more clear just as those moments when we came to realize that the pandemic was not going away in a few months.
We note our masks and the space between each of us. We feel the cool air across our entire body, the lack of a partner or family member that we usually have next to us. We think about the discomfort and difficulty that covering our faces poses for us. Masks interrupt and impede communication, both verbal and nonverbal. They require us to breathe more deeply and not overtax ourselves when wearing them. Our ability to convey emotion and express compassion is hidden from our neighbors as we cover 2/3 of our face in the name of safety and caution. We took physical touch and closeness for granted before the virus came. We look in each other’s eyes, listening for muffled voices and making hand gestures and body movements to help us do what used to come so easily. We feel isolated, alienated, misunderstood, angry, uncomfortable, and anxious with our masks.
We note also the darkness, the waning light from the west as the sun sets and we enter night. We remember that Jesus was not arrested or accused in the daylight. The crowd comes to take him in the garden after this last meal with his disciples. We know from experience how some have used darkness to take advantage of their neighbors or hide what they feel cannot be disclosed about themselves. Judas comes to Jesus and kisses him in the dark, outrightly betraying his leader and friend for money. We remember how much lonelier our nights have been when our days have not had the normal interactions and social gatherings that we have always looked forward to. We feel alone, blinded, and hopeless.
We note how the dark and facial coverings allow us to hide our true selves from those around us as Judas did with his fellow disciples. Though Jesus knew what was about to happen, the rest were confused and taken aback that betrayal was imminent. We lament this evening the feelings of betrayal and desertion that we have felt over the last year as we have disagreed with those sometimes closest to us, the very people that we thought that we could trust. We grieve for the lost relationships and distance that has grown between all of us. We ask for forgiveness from God and each other as we attempt to live faithfully and hopefully in this time. We look to Jesus, who still washed Judas’s feet even though Judas was going to betray him.
We gather this evening to mourn and lament how our lives have changed, how activities and family meals have been cancelled, how we have missed those closest to us. We gather in the spirit of the last hours of Jesus, knowing that he identifies and understands our struggles and frustrations. Jesus went through these same emotions as he walked straight-forward into loneliness, persecution, harassment, disdain, anger, false accusation, and desertion by his closest friends. He had said already that those who do the kingdom work are his real mothers and brothers and sisters and family, but soon that family will be gone, watching from the shadows and denying that they ever had any connections with him. In the last year, have you felt similarly or been able to identify with these experiences?
Let us pray. God of grief and sorrow, help us enter the story and think deeply about the multitude of ways that your Son, Jesus, suffered and died for the sins of the entire universe. Give us the strength to face our deepest and darkest selves, those sides of us that we have tried to hide over the last year or over the last many years. Give us your grace and mercy as we confess to you our struggles. Empower us to walk in the way of Jesus. Amen.