Some of you must have been nurtured on the same go to bed prayer as I was “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” In many ways it was not a very good prayer, because it always made me a little afraid that I would indeed die before the morning. But it also served to remind me that my life was not always in my hands.
Tonight is a night in which death is very much on our minds. Inescapable as it was for Jesus, so it is for us. There is an old Middle Eastern parable about a servant who came home from the marketplace pale and trembling. He told his master that he had just been jostled in the crowd by a woman. When he turned to look at her he saw that the woman was Death. She had stared at him and made a threatening gesture toward him. He begged his master for a horse so he could flee. He could leave Baghdad today and travel all the way to Samara to hide from her. The master gave the servant his best horse and the servant fled.
Later that day when the master was in the marketplace, he too encountered the woman called Death. He asked her why she had made a threatening gesture toward his servant and she replied, “That was no threatening gesture, it was a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”
The darkness of Maundy Thursday serves to remind each of us that life as we know it is not eternal. I wonder if you were in Jesus’ shoes, or shall we say sandals, and this was your last night on earth, who would you invite to have supper with you? It is not an idle question; it is intended to direct your hearts and minds to those who share your life with you. Just as Jesus had shared his life with his friends and disciples.
Makes me wonder how much of my life is worth saving to God? How much of it have I let Jesus use? If this were my last night among you what would I leave unfinished? Where would those inevitable regrets come from? Am I ready to look my master in his eyes with this life I have led?
There is something about this night that will not let me go. I feel so close to Jesus here. I sense his humanness and pain, and his courage and godliness mingled together. This is the night that Jesus holds a mirror before my eyes and in that mirror I can see my soul. Everything else pales before the intensity and importance of this night. Tonight we are one with Jesus and his disciples. Tonight it is the same as if we are sitting at table with him.
Yes we remember this night. The night that Jesus asked us who would betray him. The night he knelt before us and washed our feet caressing them in his strong hands as if he were sending a message of love straight through our bodies.
When we look in the mirror of Maundy Thursday we are exposed. No clothes to cover us. We are naked, just as he will be naked on the cross tomorrow. We see our naked selves. Our scars, our flab, the ugly parts, the secret selves we never dare show anyone. And this Jesus sees us too. And this Jesus loves us, for who we are. He loves our sorrows and our joys, our guilt as well as our hope, our shame every bit as much as our success. He knows when we have tried and failed. He knows our disappointment in ourselves. His eyes look deeply into ours and he sees that we are more than the unwanted pieces of ourselves. He lifts us out of our embarrassment. He points to our hearts, our tongues, our eyes, and whispers to us that we can begin to look anew at ourselves. We can see ourselves as he sees us full of beauty, joy, and courage.
Rabbi Kushner wrote in the beginning of his book, Honey From the Rock: “There is a place that is as far from here as breathing out is from breathing in. Where life forever holds gentle sway over death, where people are human with the same grace a willow is a willow, where the struggle and yearning between male and female is at last resolved. It is to begin with all inside us. But because we are all miniature versions of the universe, it is also far beyond.”
The recognition that we are connected to one another, to the past, to the future, and to the Holy One of Being is the meaning of this night. The presence of the Holy One is not far away from us in the reaches of the universe, but is found in the ordinariness and smallness of our beings, not in grand schemes and great events, so much as in a common meal and a shared cup.
Jesus might have chosen a different way of remembering, perhaps a miracle, a great and mighty feat, even the Resurrection. Instead, it is in the smallness of the space of dinner table, the nourishment of our bodies intertwining with the nourishment of our souls.
Holy Week is filled with the small events of life which when measured by the world seem insignificant. A man, perhaps innocent, is killed by the authorities in an unimportant place in the world. A meal is eaten by some friends that is a symbol of their love for one another. Those same friends scattered when the going gets tough afraid for their own lives.
Some say God took a step closer to human beings on the day called the Day of Resurrection. Although Rome continued for another four centuries and the world went about its business unconcerned, never knowing what had changed, some say that God was there in that unlikely man upon a cross.
When we come near this table, we come to meet Jesus. We come to remember and to renew the bonds of loyalty that unite us to each other. It is no accident that we are here. God has called us together as surely as Jesus called the twelve. To eat this meal together is to promise ourselves to one another through Jesus. It is to be together at the most basic level of our existence. It is hard to preserve your dignity when someone asks you a question when your mouth is full of food, or with mustard on your chin, or to keep your distance asking for the butter to be passed. Jesus knew this, don’t you think?
When we come to this table, we know that in Christ we have learned to feed off one another, and we need each other to fill our emptiness, because we are Christ’s food for Christ’s body.
In Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, there is a scene that captures a little of the mood of this night. Starbuck is a dreamer who complains to Lizzie that he would rather live in a dream world than reality.
Starbuck: “Nothing is as pretty in your hands as it is in your head. There ain’t no world near as good, as the world I got in here. Why?”
Lizzie: “I don’t know, maybe its because you don’t take time to see it. Always on the go – here, there, nowhere. Running away…keeping your own company. Maybe if you’d keep company with your…”
Starbuck: (doubtfully) “I’d learn to love it.”
Lizzie: “You might – if you saw it real. Some nights I’m in the kitchen washing the dishes. And Pop’s playing poker with the boys. Well, I’ll watch him real close. And at first I’ll just see an ordinary middle aged man – not very interesting too look at. And then, minute by minute, I’ll see little things I never saw in him before. Good things and bad things – queer little habits I never noticed he had – and ways of talking I never paid any mind to. And suddenly I know who he is – and I love him so much I could cry! And I want to thank God I took time to see him real.”
Tonight Jesus sees you real. And loves you like Lizzie loves her Pop. All of you. Tonight Jesus gives us a gift a chance to become more human. And when we kneel down to pray tonight, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” We’re going to know that one day we will meet him face to face and He will smile at our coming, for we have kept the faith.
Let us pray:
Help us O God to feel our way into the mystery and meaning of this night. Quicken our imagination that the Upper Room might come alive in us. For we would sit with Jesus at his table open to his love for us. Let us not miss being real and seeing the holiness that surrounds us in Christ’s love. Amen