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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The Last Supper: Jesus and Judas at Table

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved.

Early this morning, as on every Maundy Thursday, I went into the kitchen and baked some unleavened bread. It will accompany our meals between now and Easter morning. It is the bread of affliction, the bread of suffering, a reminder of the reality of sin and redemption — something we taste, chew over, absorb into ourselves. Today it has a wonderful freshness and zest about it and will accompany our recalling of the Last Supper with joy and gladness. Tomorrow, when we fast the great fast of Good Friday, it will be stale, crumbly, eaten without relish. By Holy Saturday it will be rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death. It is a small way of making the huge events of the paschal Triduum approachable, knitted to the substance of our lives in a direct, uncomplicated way.

This morning, however, as I kneaded the dough, I was thinking about the interaction of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper. Jesus washed the feet of his friend, as he washed the feet of the other disciples. We are so used to seeing the villainy of Judas that we forget or do not register the fact that Jesus loved him and washed his feet gladly, even though, according to John, he had a premonition that it was Judas who would betray him. There is, however, a dramatic pause. It is not until Jesus shares bread with him that the die is cast. 

Scholars have long argued whether Judas received what we know as the Eucharist, with most deciding that he didn’t. A lot depends on the kind of festal meal we think Jesus was celebrating with his disciples (John, for example, does not call it a passover meal) and the sequence of rituals within that meal. As I pulled and thumped the dough I asked myself whether the problem is not whether Judas actually shared in the Eucharist but our unwillingness to accept that Jesus could be so vulnerable, so open to abuse, as to offer his very self to his betrayer. Put like that, I think we know the answer. He offers himself to us and to all, sinful though we are, every time the Mass is offered. It is how we live with the tension of being simultaneously sinful yet forgiven. We like the idea of God’s mercy extending to us, but to others? Not always so much!

Tonight, for most of us, there will be no Eucharist, no sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We shall experience loss and emptiness as never before. But rather than concentrating on our loss, our own sense of deprivation, perhaps we could move our focus elsewhere, to the Agony in the Garden and the suffering of Jesus as he struggled to come to terms with what lay ahead of him. The idea of Jesus needing help may seem odd to some, but I think it provides a point of contact. Jesus needed his friends. He wanted Peter, James and John to watch with him. He needed Judas, too, as his friend. He wanted him by his side, but Judas had gone outside into the darkness. Pray God we never follow.

Audio Version

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