The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Thursday 20th March 2008
Year A, Maundy Thursday
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 13:1-15

Holy Eucharist with The Procession of The Holy Oils, The Washing of Feet and The Procession with The Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times!" So begins Charles Dickens\' novel of the French Revolution A tale of Two Cities in which the authorities are gripped by murderous fanaticism which leads to the voluntary death of Sydney Carton, a lawyer who thinks he is beyond redemption.

That portentous opening could have been written for today, the day of the Church\'s year which presents us with the sharpest contrast of feeling as: first, we watch Jesus kneeling at our feet begging that we kneel at the feet of others; then we thank Jesus for the perpetuation of his real presence with us through the Institution of the Holy Eucharist; and finally we walk with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we sleep while he prays and then take flight when he is arrested as the result of our betrayal.

It is a day full of warnings. Peter\'s extreme reactions to Jesus should be a warning: first, he does not want his feet washed at all; and then he wants Jesus to abandon the delicate symbolism of what he is doing and turn it into an unseemly drama. The strange reaction of the Disciples when Jesus says he will be betrayed by one of them is also a warning: they ask if they are guilty; what possible insecurity could have led them to ask such a question? The conduct of Jesus\' inner circle of Peter, James and John should also act as a warning: for they neglect Jesus in the simple act of falling asleep. And, finally, there is the obvious betrayal of Jesus by Judas, a warning against the ego.

Drama, unfocused guilt, what we would today call a failure of the duty of care and egocentric assertion are the charges against us.

The first charge is that we oscillate between rejecting Jesus the servant and then wanting Him to do everything for us. This is a serious charge because we so easily drift into a mind set which operates as if there had been no incarnation, concentrating instead on the power of God in the Old Testament.

The second charge is that we feel unfocused guilt, a vague sense that we did something wrong which brought Jesus to his death. Of course the Disciples were not sure in what way they had betrayed Jesus but we do know; our guilt is not unfocused; it is sharp and to the point. The perfect Jesus was bound to come into conflict with imperfect humanity and his death at our hands was therefore inevitable.

The third charge, the failure of our duty of care, is simple enough; even though we were created for the specific purpose of choosing to love God through each other and directly, we too often forget that purpose and wander off, physically and mentally, into self indulgence and carelessness.

What of the final charge, of direct rejection of Jesus? We would find it hard to accept this; and we would be right. None of us would betray Jesus with a kiss; we are not in the realm of the Brothers Karamazov; we will accept the first three charges but not this one. I think that is right. I think that we spend too much time, again in a kind of self aggrandisement, personalising and magnifying guilt. And, after all, there really can be no more serious charge than the collective blame we carry for killing God in the person of Jesus to which the individual act of Judas is simply a lurid precursor.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I know that the language of killing God is difficult, even extreme, but so is the counterbalancing language of Eucharist. We say that humanity was collectively responsible for the death of the incarnate Christ; and we say that the Incarnate Christ was responsible for giving Himself to us until the end of time I the Eucharist. The two are impossible without each other: we could not imagine the worst sin of all, killing Jesus, without a profound reverence for the mystery of Incarnation; and we could not survive our part in the events of today and tomorrow were it not for the Eucharist which forms the centre of the Maundy Thursday drama and which forms the centre of our Christian lives. It is through the Eucharist that we can come to grips with the interlocking two-part drama of our responsibility for Christ on earth and Christ\'s responsibility for us on earth. For just as Jesus was God Incarnate we are God\'s creation incarnate; the Creator became incarnate for us and creatures became incarnate for the Creator. That contract, which gave us freedom and the imperfection that necessarily goes with it, is made tolerable by the perpetuation of the Incarnate Jesus in Eucharist.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We are only able to accept our part in today\'s suffering and death because of the part its victim has in us. For just as the mystery of the Incarnation ended in the scandal of the Cross it also perpetuated itself in the Institution of the Eucharist. It is therefore overwhelmingly significant for us that as we leave the room where our feet have been washed to climb the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane at the beginning of our most harrowing journey, that we carry The Blessed Sacrament with us to the Altar of Repose; for, in the profoundest mystery of all, Jesus ensured that, before we killed him, He would never die.