People often tell me that the most moving ceremony of Holy Thursday is what happens after the Mass is over. In some churches the emphasis is on the place of light where the Watch of Prayer till Midnight takes place ; but although that is very important, I think that what happens in the rest of the Church is more significant for most people : and that is the stripping of the altar. In Eynsham we do this whilst everyone is still in their place in the main part of the church, so that they can actually see the altar, and the sanctuary around it, gradually becoming a place of desolation and emptiness. Only then, when the place that is usually the focus of light is dark and empty, do we turn to the one place of light in an otherwise darkened church.
It always reminds me of the great words from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) that we hear on Palm Sunday where he talks of God in Jesus “emptying himself” This is the heart of our faith: that God, who is all-powerful and quite beyond our reach, chooses to become like us, so that he might draw us into his love. So we are called to find God not just in light and glory, but also in darkness and emptiness. St Paul goes on to say that God chose “to assume the condition of a slave, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” We often find this difficult to grasp. We think of Jesus as the Son of God, as our Lord and Saviour, and so he is; and so we find it very difficult indeed to think of him as choosing deliberately to be completely like us.
This is the problem with the foot-washing too. This would have been the task of the lowliest slave which is why the disciples are so shocked. But when the priest imitates this action, everyone chosen has already washed their feet, and so there are no dirty smelly feet of the kind that Jesus would have encountered, and so the ceremony although significant loses some of its bite! In the same way, most images of the crucifixion, of the death of Jesus on the cross, rarely convey the real horror, the pain and, even worse, that sense of desolation, of emptiness, that Jesus must have felt in his heart. He must have asked the question we ask when we see pictures of innocent people suffering in war “Why, why do people do this kind of thing? How can anyone be so cruel?”
I sometimes hear people say, “Ah but it was different for Jesus. He knew that Easter would happen, that light would eventually break through the darkness.” But surely this is not the case. He had hope maybe, for he had identified himself with the suffering Servant of Isaiah, the great reading we hear on Good Friday. It begins by describing the terrible suffering he must endure, but ends “His soul’s anguish over he shall see the light and be content” (Isaiah 53:1-12) Yes he had hope, but it was hope as any human might have, it was not the certainty he would have known as God; for he has emptied himself of that power to become like us.
Our problem is that we so often think of Jesus in glory, that we begin to think that somehow the suffering he endured didn’t hurt him in the same way it would hurt us. Indeed there are some who might even take it further, and imply that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die but just appeared to. A view that was condemned many years ago. This then has been a problem for Christians down through the ages so that we can hear St Augustine dealing with it in the 5thC when he wrote, “When something is said of the Lord Jesus Christ which would refer to a certain lowliness unworthy of God, we must not hesitate to attribute it to him, since he did not hesitate to join himself to us…. he wished to make his own the words of the psalm as he hung on the cross and said “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” (Discourses on the Psalms 85:1)
It is the same problem that we face when we celebrate Mass. We use the word “celebrate” deliberately, because it is a great joy that God has chosen to come to us in the Bread and Wine, the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. But we need to remember what St Paul says of this ; that “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death” Note that, because it is so important! In the midst of the wonder and glory of his Risen Presence, we are called to proclaim not that glory, but all the suffering that he chose to undergo in order to be one with us. Yes we say it, but how easily we forget it, which is surely why all the ceremonies once a year before Easter are so important for us.
We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.