A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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5 thoughts on “A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021”

  1. Dear Sr Catherine, thank you! I’ll take a walk across the road soon, 08:00 RSA time, and ask our local township / parish baker, Mrs Sabina van Rensburg, in her 80’s, to prepare some unleavened loaves for us at St Mark. Thank you for reflection, as always, Peace and All Goodness!

  2. Thank you for this reflection. At a time of personal grief and darkness, my 57 year old husband died suddenly in his sleep, it is a good reminder that there is still light and hope in the death and resurrection of Christ.

  3. Dear Sister Catherine, God bless you all as you live out and through the Paschal Triduum. From your expressive description, l can taste the unleavened bread and the sweet wine of the first Eucharist, feel the outward pouring of His love for us all and anticipate the Saviour’s pain of sacrifice for our redemption and a world free from hatred, war, destruction, pain, exploitation and misery.
    God is Love! Peace and love be with you now and always.

  4. A poem of hope…
    Saint Judas

    When I went out to kill myself, I caught
    A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
    Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
    My name, my number, how my day began,
    How soldiers milled around the garden stone
    And sang amusing songs; how all that day
    Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
    Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

    Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
    Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
    Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
    Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
    The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
    I held the man for nothing in my arms.

    James Wright

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