A Maundy Thursday Homily preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 9 April 2020
Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. I recently came across a small blurb that reported a conversation between Professor Meade and one of students. The student asked her professor what she considered to be the first signs of civilization in a given culture. Surprisingly, the answer that was given had nothing to do with culture as we normally think of it in terms of art or music or other elevating aspects of our common life. What Margaret Mead said was that she regarded the first sign of civilization with the discovery of a femur, a human thighbone that had been broken and healed.
The anthropologist explained her answer in terms of the fact that when animals are injured and can’t run, they are left to die. They can’t run from danger. No wild animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. Yet, when a human femur, a thighbone was found with signs of being broken and then healed, it was, in Meade’s mind, a sign of evidence of care from another: That care from another allowed enough time for healing to take place; that care from another provided the opportunity for new life to occur.
Margaret Mead, noted 20th century cultural anthropologist, in response to the question of what she thought were the first signs of civilization, said that helping someone through difficulty is where civilization starts. She said, “We are at our best when we serve others.”
The Thursday in the Christian Holy Week is known as “Maundy Thursday” – “Maundy” being derived from the Latin for “mandatory”. At the Words of Institution in the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus tells us to “do this (that is, keep the sacramental feast) in remembrance of me.” The “do this” is not a request; it is not an option. It is “mandatory” – mandatory if we are to have the life of Christ in our own lives. So it is that this Thursday of Holy Week is “Mandatory Thursday”, Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Three Sacred Days – days that profoundly identify the nature of our God and what life is like on God’s terms. These are the quintessential days of God’s caring and healing for us.
As a general rule, we Americans don’t like things that are “mandatory”, except that nowadays with the pandemic we are getting more used to the fact that there are mandatory things that all of us need to regard and honor: in particular, that our life together requires mindful and respectful attention. While we don’t like being told what to do – or not to do, we nonetheless recognize that there are certain things that must be done for the common good, as well as for our own good. For Christian people, this Maundy Thursday is a reminder of the non-optional aspects of what it takes for us to be “civilized” (to use Margaret Meade’s phrase), that is to be more Christlike. “We are,” as Meade said and as our baptismal covenant holds, “at our best when we serve others.”
So, these questions: What is the mandatory nature of the God-life? What are we being reminded of in this “Maundy Thursday, the first aspects of the “Sacred Three Days”?
I often push those who join me in Bible Study to approach the text as a detective, as one who looks for clues and takes note of the forensics at hand so as not to jump to a quick analysis or convenient conclusion. One of the important clues of this “Last Supper” scene from the Gospel of John (Chapter 13) concerns what is missing and what is included. Curiously, you will note that unlike in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – where there is a specific account of Jesus’ identifying the bread and wine with his body and blood, no such account is given in tonight’s lesson. All that the Chapter 13 says is that the central actions of the night occurred “during supper” (13:2).
The clear inference is that by the time that John wrote his gospel account (for the sake of argument, let’s say the last decade of that initial century) – John’s inference is that by the time of his gospel account it was common knowledge in the Christian faith community that this “supper” was the “Last Supper” of earlier gospel accounts and that Jesus’ “Words of Institution” were a deep part of the corporate faith memory, to the extent that they could be omitted by John to make another point. The forensics here indicate how central the Communion celebration was in the infant church, that the supper referred to by John in verse 2 was easily recognized as the “Passover Meal” mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and in Paul’s letter, to the extent that another aspect of the Christian Eucharistic reality and life needed to be emphasized.
What is missing in John’s account of this “mandatory” Thursday night (namely, the description of the meal) is overshadowed by what is included – and uniquely so by the Fourth Gospel.
The focus of John’s “Maundy Thursday” is the footwashing and the conversation that action fomented. But it is the footwashing in John’s gospel that provides the answer to the question of what is “mandatory” in the Christian life of following Jesus. Anthropologist Margaret Meade also has the answer in her scientific observations and experience. “We are,” she notes, “at our best, when we serve others.” In the context of this holy night, let us remember that we followers of Jesus are at our best, when we serve others as Christ has served us.
I trust that the irony of this gospel account is not lost on any of us. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we read a sacred text in which there is a great deal of washing going on – of feet, not hands – and more to the point, the washing of feet, — not hands — is the unmistakable and terribly inconvenient reminder of the mandatory call to serve others, as God-in-Christ has served us.
This scene makes a central theological statement about the God-life-in-Christ, one we at St. Philip’s have regularly made: namely, God-in-Christ has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves; say “thank you for the gift; express your gratitude by sharing what you have received.
In a year in which we can neither gather together to keep the sacramental feast nor be retrained to serve others in a hands-on manner through liturgical footwashing, we must be careful not to allow our virtual connection to make our service in Christ’s Name be virtual, abstract, distantly untouchable. As the comment made by Margaret Meade implies, our lives are broken; therefore, we need healing. And healing takes the care of another.
As you and I begin what is formally called the Triduum (the “Sacred Three Days”) with this commemoration of the Lord’s “Last Supper”, it is no secret that our lives and the life of the world are broken. The fear among us marks the reality of my words, even as the mortal threat of the virus is reckoned in the distressing numbers and disturbing projections.
Our stubborn insistence on being in control, our denial of how vulnerable and frail our lives actually are, the haunting emptiness of being on our own – these things are all signs of our brokenness now; and healing is needed – healing from the care of another.
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Not an option but a command – a command that brings true and lasting life. “Helping someone through difficult times is where civilization starts.” “We’re at our best when we serve others.”
As we enter the days of our salvation story, the story of our being healed and restored, let us then be “civilized”. In this case, that’s another word for being faithful, as Jesus is faithful – now and for ever. Amen.