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In the entire rhythm of our church year there are two services in my home parish that affect me most deeply. One is the Easter Vigil. This, Maundy Thursday, is the other one. One starts in darkness and ends flooded with light and sound. The other, this one, ends surrounded by darkness and silence.
This year we still can’t go back to a service fully gathered and in person. But we can still contemplate how these services shape us—especially this one.
On Maundy Thursday in “normal” years, after washing feet, after the Eucharist, after a quiet meal in the parish hall, the altar is stripped, furnishings are removed, we hear how Jesus is betrayed and arrested, every light is gradually extinguished, and we all depart in silence. We leave speechless, surrounded by darkness, maybe reliving moments in our own lives when hopes and dreams were shattered beyond any repair we could imagine.
Now it’s true—we know that darkness isn’t the last word. We wouldn’t gather for this 2,000 years later if this had been the last word. We’ve already heard repeatedly how the crucified Jesus came alive in a way his first followers could neither comprehend nor escape. And we are the Church today because we’re astonished to find the risen life of Jesus still enlivening our lives.
But especially these days we can’t afford to ignore that this is the risen life of the crucified, of one who never leaves the darkness behind. Darkness is not the last word, but it’s still with us, because the risen one is with us, God is with us, and we now know that this is the God who never leaves the darkness behind.
St. Paul tells us that when we gather as Christ’s Body to break and share bread and wine, we meet the risen Jesus in the broken, dying Jesus. There’s no keeping them apart.
St. John’s Gospel (1:4-5) tells us that Jesus is God’s fleshed-out, unquenchable light that enlightens everyone. But it’s the light that only shines in darkness. And in tonight’s reading, from the same Gospel, Jesus is glorified only through, let’s say, getting down and dirty, washing the accumulated road-dirt from his companions’ smelly feet—no glorification here apart from loving humiliation, no unquenchable, fleshed-out light apart from surrounding darkness.
Tonight we we let the darkness itself open our eyes; we let the silence speak with meaning no words can capture. Instead of a feel-good faith, we’re being drawn into a get-real faith—a faith that doesn’t sugarcoat life’s difficulties and devastations with pat answers that never really work.
We let the darkness and the silence open us to the full meaning of Jesus’ words: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Loving one another starts with gestures of goodwill—a kind word, a friendly embrace, sharing what was never exclusively ours to begin with—gestures like washing one another’s feet. These are all part of loving one another. They’re crucial. But they only scratch the surface of what it means to love one another, not just as people customarily do, but as God has been loving us from the very beginning, fleshed out now in the shared life of Jesus.
Loving as God loves means sharing not only in the joys but also in the sorrows of one another’s lives. It means sharing in the joys and sorrows not only of those we like but of those we don’t particularly like, even of those who definitely do not like us. It means opening ourselves not only to the light each of us brings, but to the darkness none of us escapes, as we are drawn to be not just a gathering of people but the body of Christ, broken for us and for all.
Here’s a practice I too often ignore, but I’ve never regretted remembering to do it. Somebody comes to you in deep pain. You’d like to reassure them. You’d like to tell them it’s not that bad, that it’s going to be OK.
Don’t. Not yet. It’s not that you would be wrong, exactly, but it’s not telling the whole truth. The whole truth, the truth fleshed out in Jesus, is that the only way beyond our pain is through it, letting it feel just as bad as it feels. It’s only when it feels that bad that we can start to realize—it doesn’t have the last word.
So instead of saying, “It’ll be OK,” try saying, “Yes, it’s that bad.” Or better, try saying nothing and just being there. Don’t try to dispel the darkness. Don’t try to fill the silence. Let the darkness do its work, and eyes will be opened. Let the silence speak, and meaning will happen—meaning no words can capture. Painful meaning, still, but more than that too, more than we can say.
We’ll be back after tonight. We’ll be back after these months of loss and social isolation. We’ll have more to say. God will have more to say. Immeasurably more. But tonight we don’t turn our backs on the unspeakable pain that all-embracing love must undergo. We let the darkness itself open our eyes; we let the silence speak with meaning no words can capture.