One of the things I have learned over the years is the mixed blessing of offering pastoral care from personal experience. The mother who lost an adult child both feels gratified to help someone else going through the same situation and angry that she is now an expert in grieving the loss of an adult child. The man who has been through addiction is honored to help someone else through addition – and yet wishes he were not so personally knowledgeable. The divorcee talking to a dear friend whose marriage has recently crumbled shares, “Welcome to the club you never wanted to belong to.”
As we started thinking about how to honor Maundy Thursday in a pandemic when many of the things we would normally do on this night are forbidden, we thought the same: we already know how to do this. We learned last year that when we cannot experience the intimacy of footwashing, the grief of the last holy meal before Easter, the dimming of the lights, the stripping of the altar, and walking out of this space in silence, turning to a totally different liturgy can create another kind of comfort. We turn to Evensong in the hopes that another ancient tradition, one the Church celebrates almost everyday in the Cathedrals, Minsters, and colleges of the Mother Church in England, will ease the mourning of yet another loss during this time of pandemic.
But being experts in how to cope in a pandemic – either liturgically, emotionally, or spiritually – does not make the grief any easier. We still feel the absence of what has been – almost as much as we feel the pending absence of Jesus when we will lay him in a tomb tomorrow. Having figured out how connect with our community digitally, enjoying seeing people’s names pop up on Facebook, and loving hearing the sounds of our Choral Scholars coming through our TVs and laptops on YouTube, certainly has sufficed in these days – and in fact has brought many people into Hickory Neck who had never experienced Hickory Neck before. But all of that does not negate our grief that a year later we are still in this liminal time of “not yet.”
So, what do we do with this internal tension that we are not yet where we are going, and certainly not fully who we have been? I like to look at Jesus in our gospel lesson tonight. Jesus knew what was coming on this night too. He knew Judas, his beloved companion on his pilgrimage, was going to betray him. He knew great tragedy was coming, abandonment by the other disciples would happen, and humiliation, pain, and death were inevitable. Sitting in the upper room, in the tension of no longer being just a rabbi and not yet the risen Messiah, Jesus could have easily wallowed in grief. Instead, in that overcrowded, tense upper room, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist. In the face of pending doom and tremendous transformation, Jesus bends down, and washes feet. When the world is in chaos, Jesus does the work of humble service, of respecting the dignity of others, of an everyday deed of loving his neighbor.
We cannot possibly know when church will begin to feel familiar and comfortable. We do not know which changes we have experienced in the last year will become permanent. We cannot know the lasting impact of this pandemic on the fabric of our lives. But we do know what Jesus says tonight. In the face of the unknown, Jesus says to do two things: to serve others as he served his disciples and to love one another. Jesus makes everything quite simple tonight. In the face of disorienting new realities Jesus says: serve and love. That is our invitation in this most sacred week – when our grief and frustration are sometimes paralyzing, engaging in the work of serving and loving are the actions that will give us strength for the days and weeks ahead. Amen.