Maundy Thursday has always been my favourite service of the year. I love the solemnity of the service. The stark contrast between the celebration of the Eucharist, immediately followed by the removal of all signs of life, leaves me continually awestruck. I find profound poignancy in the church being left as nothing but an empty shell. For me, it is a reminder of how the very life and heart of my faith is ripped away if I disregard the resurrected presence of the Lord.
These reflections are easy to make, sitting comfortably in my prayer desk, knowing that Easter is right around the corner. After all, these ruminations are easy when you never have to walk the road of suffering. Thus, year after year, I would enter this, my favourite service, with an attitude of pretend sombreness: the liturgy would be spoken with a touch of sadness, my pace of speech slow enough to echo a sense of mourning, my demeanour appropriately subdued and contemplative. But it would all be skin deep, for I would have already written my Easter sermon. Already had I read of the resurrection, and begun preparing myself for the Sunday celebration. Despite my love of Maundy Thursday, I have to wonder, did I ever actually enter into it?
But last year was different. My wife and I had known for some time that she was sick. Doctors had confirmed that there was a growth in her body, but assured us that it was benign: annoying, yes. Threatening, no. Surgery was done, and the growth removed. We thought that was the end of it, but then life turned upside down. The doctors had been mistaken, and that annoying but benign growth had, indeed, been cancerous. On Maundy Thursday, my wife and I were called down to the cancer centre to sign the appropriate paperwork so she could begin Chemotherapy. We heard about the risks, the symptoms, and the probability of survival. This day, the day of my favourite service, became a day about cancer, about the loss of hope, and about the closeness of death.
Despite the appointment at the cancer centre, I had agreed to be preside at the Maundy Thursday service. I drove my wife home from the cancer centre, having just signed on for an extremely aggressive treatment plan, turned around, and arrived at the church roughly 20 minutes prior to the beginning of the service. I walked into the church in a haze. I put on my vestments, and I sat in silence.
I know what you are thinking: I shouldn’t have been at the service. I should have called someone. I should have been sitting beside my wife. You would be right. But I wasn’t thinking straight. And so, I just went on auto-pilot and presided over the liturgy. I washed people’s feet; I preached the sermon; I began to celebrate the Eucharist. I felt as if I stumbled through the service, my words and prayers spoken from a place of deep emptiness. I felt an inner disconnect between who I was and who I was to be at the church. It was as if the church was expecting ministry as usual: the safe-and-easy-but-subdued Lenten reflections that had become common. Yet for me and my family, life was no longer safe, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Over everything we knew and loved, cancer had thrown a big question mark. Everything had changed, and I was not the same person.
This feeling of disconnect changed, however, as I celebrated the Eucharist. I stood behind the Altar, saying the words I have spoken so many times before: “this is my body given for you,” “this is my blood shed for you.” So many times, these words have been rattled off without thought. So many times, I have lifted the elements in a liturgically appropriate but completely rote action. But as I spoke the words that night, I heard them echoed back to me. It was as if Jesus whispered these very words into my heart. In that moment I almost began to cry as the full force of the Eucharistic message made its way to me. In those words I heard Jesus say:
Into the fear of what comes next, into the awaiting pain, into the vomiting and the constant sickness, the hair loss, the time off work, the crushing weight of chemo drugs and cancer treatments,—I come; Into the times when the role of caregiver seems taxing and long, into the feelings of exhaustion and sorrow, and into the fear of loss, my body is given for you, and my blood is shed for you. It is into all these dark places that I come. You are not alone.
Maundy Thursday, and indeed all of Lent, reminds us that it is in the very sucker punches of life that we find the presence of God. As we reach our hands out to receive him once again in bread and wine, we do so not from places of ease and comfort, but from places of agony and heart-wrenching need. The glory of the incarnation is the very ugliness into which Jesus comes. Christ offers himself into a world of lostness and confusion, a world where sometimes we feel powerless against the dark things that crash down upon us. The power of the cross is not just that Jesus heals our hurts and softens our pains, but that he hurts right along with us. Our agonies are met by his. This is the space in which we come to him in the Eucharist. We are called to enter the Eucharistic mystery precisely when we are overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and betrayal, and when can’t help but feel separated from God’s presence. Jesus institutes the Eucharist, and offers himself to us within it, precisely for the times when we stand in the church and feel completely hollow.
And yet, in that place, there is grace. In that place, there love. In that place, there is a Saviour. Alleluia.