Holy Week 2013

Maundy Thursday

Liturgically, reflecting the reality of the occasion we commemorate, there is no more bitter/sweet occasion than tonight: the evening when the holy oils are blessed, signifying comfort and strength; the evening when the first Eucharist is celebrated, harking back to physical liberation of the Chosen People and anticipating our spiritual liberation; and the evening when Jesus is failed by all his friends, arrested, and tried for his life. But for those who were there, having their feet washed by their teacher, sharing the meal, struggling and failing to pray in the Garden, the sensation was surely even more ambiguous. Even in the relative tranquillity and assurance of a sixty-year old Church of Easter, the Evangelist John's account of that last evening of Jesus' liberty is near garbled: the foot washing is simple enough but after that the text loses its sense of linearity and sounds like the sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue which we might expect from James Joyce. And why? The answer, surely, is that in spite of Jesus' self-command and his strength in the Father, the whole occasion is profoundly de-stabilising, just as it is for us, as we process to the altar of repose which possesses something of the tomb as well as something of the garden.

In the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper, the writing style is more secure but there is still a deep sense of contradiction and even fracture. If you were directing any of the three accounts of the Last Supper as a play you would be asking the actors to switch mood almost every sentence. The context of the plot is that we have a liberation celebration during which the joy only flickers as the overall mood is of foreboding; and the dialogue is fractured and distracted. And for us that is encapsulated in the reality that the Eucharist can make no sense as a sacrament without its institution being followed by the torture and death of Jesus; we are simultaneously thankful for the banquet and complicit in the grim events of Good Friday.

This is an uncertain and de-stabilising evening and, as the shadows lengthen, the signs are ever more ominous. It is the time of the new moon; the garden is dark; and looking down towards the Brook of Kidron, you can see swords glinting in the lantern light.