Posted on March 25, 2013
In the coming days the world’s two billion Christians will begin celebrating Holy Week. This week, booked-ended by the festive days of Palm Sunday that honors Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, and Easter Sunday that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, contains some of the most significant events on the church calendar.
Among others, there is Great Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And depending upon the tradition, Holy Week is celebrated with special Masses, vigils, Tenebraes, participation in the Stations of the Cross, Passion plays, sunrise services, cantatas, and street processions.
Not to be missed in all this activity is the Thursday of Holy Week, referred to as Maundy Thursday. “Maundy,” like so many Christian traditions, comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment.” On Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion, he gathered his disciples and gave them the commandment to love and serve one another. Then he showed them how.
Jesus rolled up his sleeves, threw a towel over his shoulder, and with a basin of water, squatted down to wash the filthy feet of his disciples. Yes, God stooped. The Christ crawled. The Master became the servant. Jesus took the position of a slave and honored those who had not the slightest indication of how holy such an act really was.
Walter Brueggemann describes this scene with his usual insight and flair. He says, “To kneel in the presence of another is to be totally vulnerable, because you are in an excellent posture to have your face or your groin kicked in. Our Lord made himself vulnerable precisely in that way! He knelt, not in humility or in fear, but in strength and confidence, opening himself to others.”
In the midst of this busy week of festivities, I wonder if a few of we Christians might pause to consider vulnerability as a holy exercise. See, Jesus never maintained feelings of superiority over others; he eagerly gave up his rights and privileges. Jesus didn’t defend himself with angry tirades or theological manifestos; he taught – and manifested – vulnerable love.
Jesus’ instruction on Maundy Thursday was not a how-to lecture on proving how “right” his followers were; it was a demonstration course for how to live in the world. Thus, the Christian means and method of confrontation is not condemnation, but naked service.
A follower of Jesus testifies to and celebrates the truth he has come to know, but knows in equal measure that the truth has been washed through and through with a foot wash basin. The power of the disciple of Christ is a power wielded, not by force or fist, but by a holy hand towel.
He who would be like Jesus does not lord over others. He gets down on the ground, down on his face, down in the dust, the mire, and the mud. He makes himself completely and totally exposed. Even if those whom he serves kick him in the face; even if they stone him to death; even if they crucify him on a cross: There is no other way.
So how does this kind of vulnerability break out in our lives? Maybe like this: One day, all at once or like a slow dawn; in a blinding flash or a gradual evolvement; as literal as the world or as mystical as a dream; we will see Jesus kneeling before us. His calloused carpenter’s hands are gently splashing the water in the basin. A clean towel hangs around his neck.
He crouches to wash our dirty feet, knowing who and what we are really made of: Suspicious, angry, petty, fragile, hateful, self-centered, and untrusting. We know he knows these things, but then he smiles a knowing smile, and we understand that he loves us anyway.
By submitted to and serving us, Christ opens our hearts in new, revolutionary ways. And the more open our hearts become – the more we understand how vulnerable our Lord has made himself to us – the greater our capacity to be vulnerable toward others. That’s how God’s love works, and that love can make any week holy.
Posted on March 21, 2013
In January 1947, three shepherd boys found themselves scampering after a goat that had strayed too far into the hills. It was growing late in the day, and the boys’ fathers would be very angry if they did not get their flock home before sunset.
So, one of the boys climbed into the hills to retrieve the contrary goat. There, he came across a cave, one of thousands in the desert where he lived, that he had never explored. Thinking some treasure might be hidden deep within, he ventured inside. There he found a collection of old, clay pots, wasting away in the dark.
These pots contained some old, musty scrolls, and nothing else; a disappointment for the three impromptu treasure-hunters. The boys took the scrolls home any way. And for a while, they were kept on a pole inside the family’s tent, until finally an uncle encouraged the boys to take the papers to the market at Bethlehem and sell them for a few a dollars.
This they did. Those papers, pulled from the old clay jars, were sold by a shepherd boy for seven British pounds. And that is how the most important ancient manuscript discovery in the last thousand years, came to be.
Those documents, uncovered by a Bedouin and his goat, have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They include the oldest known surviving copies of the Old Testament, written down before the time of Jesus. They are one thousand years older than any other biblical manuscript in the world. It was an absolutely stunning discovery.
The Apostle Paul didn’t know about the Dead Sea scrolls, but he certainly would have been familiar with the method that preserved them. Precious materials, books, parchments, family treasures: In the first century the only way to store these things was to put them in a jar of clay, a delicate, ceramic pot, seal it as tight as you could and bury it in the ground – like our grandparents burying money in the backyard in an old coffee can.
It was an exercise in contradiction: Expensive, priceless treasure, crammed into breakable, so very, very fragile containers. And it is within that exact contradiction that Paul says we all live. Outwardly, we are cracked pots (and crackpots), but within us is the light, glory, and treasure of God – something that cannot have a price tag attached to it.
The flimsy clay jar that is our body is always under attack. We are pressed on every side by troubles. We are perplexed and confused by life. We are pursued and chased by difficult circumstances. These susceptible containers are fragile, at best.
“But, we are not destroyed,” Paul says. We have suffered, yes, but we still have hope; because in the tearing and in the breaking, the cracking and the vulnerability, the glory of God is revealing itself. It is shining out into the darkness like a priceless treasure.
Here, then, is the glorious but terrible news: Without the breaking, there is no glory. Without the crushing weight of difficulty, there is little chance of the God-stuff getting out. Without suffering there is no reward; without the trials of life, there would be little display of the greatness of God in our life.
We’ve been told, “no guts, no glory.” That’s not exactly right. Rather, it is “no grief, no glory.” For it is in the destructive forces around us, the very things that threaten to obliterate us, that actually release God’s grace and power.
Of course, not everyone accepts their troubles as the means to something great. We can look at what life has dealt us and be angry, bitter, mad-at-the-world, frustrated with ourselves, and bearing a grudge against everyone from God to the mailman.
In doing that, we waste our difficulties rather than learn, grow, and develop into a more Jesus-like person through them. As the appointed trustees of our lives, it would serve us well to be good stewards of our pain. It is the only way to achieve a glory that outweighs all of life’s troubles.