Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Thursday, April 09 2020, 6:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35; Psalm 22
There is no liturgy in our calendar more physical, more intimate, than Maundy Thursday, no liturgy more strangely affected by the crisis through which we are living. I remember Maundy Thursday during SARS, the restrictions required then and their poignancy, but they seem now like tiny alterations, almost invisible. Now we recall Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at a time when we cannot touch each other, cannot be in the same space. We remember the institution of the eucharist, the words spoken over the bread and wine, the body and the blood, and yet we will not celebrate the eucharist tonight.
In most of those places today where feet are still washed, in hospitals, in care homes, bodies will be necessarily separated by protective equipment. It is right, it is essential, it is the shape in this moment of love, that we keep each other safe through separation. But it is not wrong that our human bodies still long to be with each, to kneel, to touch, to share food. For this we were made, and though it is a far horizon now, it is the return to this presence for which we strive. All our distance, all our separation now, is aimed at our return to each other, however long that may take.
But we remember, too, that what the story of this night is fundamentally about is the absolute self-offering of God. We remember the children of Israel sheltering in their homes as the firstborn of Egypt die in the night. We remember the little frightened group of disciples, confused and lost in the great city of violence, huddled at night in a secret room. We remember that the incarnate Word, God in human flesh, chose, that night in Jerusalem, in the upper room, to wash them and feed them and care for them, to kneel at their feet, to offer bread even to the one who would most spectacularly betray him.
And that love which condescends to all our conditions, which will come to us as water for tired feet and food for hungry bodies, will come to us in our condition now. Not to protect us from the inevitable suffering; the disciples were not so protected. Not to bring effortless safety, or to take away our pain. But to reach us, to touch us, to inscribe our names on the palm of God’s hand. Christ bends to our condition, comes to us now in the breeze through an open window, wet earth and early flowers, as a tired bike courier leaving a no-contact delivery at a door, as a stranger gently yielding space in the street.
We cannot enact the washing of feet, but we can witness the work of the Inner City Health Associates, as they try to ensure that homeless people receive not only medical treatment, but kindness and respect; the work of the city staff who came here last week near dawn, when one of our breakfast guests arrived coughing and feverish, to transfer him to an assessment centre, and to ask if he had pets, special needs, how they could care for him best. And we can see, even now, the generosity of some of those who have almost nothing, but continue to share what little they have, even if it is as intangible as friendship from a six foot distance.
We cannot share together, as a gathered family, in the communion of Christ’s body and blood. But that body and blood are still, and always, broken and offered for the world, in every moment, in every atom of creation, never ceasing; that offering the life of all that is. We return to the ancient concept of spiritual communion, made by soldiers on fields of battle, by prisoners and refugees, by all those who have not had physical access to the sacraments, knowing that no sacrament, however central, constrains the presence of God to the soul which longs for that presence.
And we may still share in what Lancelot Andrewes tells us is the true completion of communion, the “breaking of bread to the needy.” For only a few front-line workers, right now, is that a physical act, yet those few are still our representative bodies, bringing the church to the need of the world. For others, financial support of the food banks and meal programmes, or spiritual support for friends on the front line, or simply the transmission of information to people who are looking for a meal – this is also our means of communion now, of creating the real presence of Christ among us.
Traditionally, this service ends with the symbolic stripping of our sanctuary and our altar. But while we may return to this in memory and image, this year we live through a greater stripping, our sanctuary and our altar taken, for now, away from us, our bare selves in our separate rooms all that we have. It is not beautiful, it is not solemn, it is awkward and uncomfortable, it does not feel like worship. But it is, we may be sure, so much more like the nights that we remember in this night.
In that night of plague in Egypt, the children of Israel could not even imagine what might happen next, as they fled into the darkness with only what they could carry; and they would not see a clear future for a very long time, would know only wandering and displacement and constant change. The disciples in the upper room knew only that the next day would most likely be terrible, and they did not know if there would be days coming after it. They could only do the next available thing, and endure the day. And so must we, in our own uncertainty, our own always-shifting displacement.
We are deep in the story which, in most years, we only enact. Within that story we will be like the people in the desert, like the disciples—we will make mistakes, we will demand too little and too much, we will falter, we will complain about how things used to be better, we will fall asleep at times when we should be offering support, we will probably betray our loyalties sometimes to keep ourselves safe. And we will be forgiven. Eternally, utterly, profoundly forgiven. Our tired feet washed, somehow; our tired bodies fed. Do what you must and what you can, in this our present exile, and the Word will come to you, invisible even, the thinnest thread of hope, but always bending to our condition, always offering what we barely know we need, and cannot endure without.