Here we are, at the beginning of the Triduum – a Latin word for the three-day period of the most central and cataclysmic events of the life of Jesus, and of us, his followers. It is often remarked that Christian faith in general, and certainly what we do on these days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter is counter-cultural, going against the grain of society. While that has always been true at some level, our culture’s slide into narcissism has become more and more obvious. The culture of “me” and everything revolving around “me” shows up in ways large and small. And it’s hard to fight being pulled into that orbit, where the center of gravity is “self.”
One example of this is the language that is sometimes used when people talk about their experience of volunteering for some cause or other. When asked why they do what they do, a volunteer will often give this sort of answer: “I love being involved with this project because it gives me such a good feeling. What the people I am helping receive is great, but what I get back is so much greater.” That sounds innocent enough, and it may well be true, but it makes the focus all about the volunteer, all about me and my good feeling. It is important and vital to be generous and self-giving, especially for Christians, but the motivation for helping others should be their genuine need. And the effect of our service and tangible efforts should be that we are changed in the process…and change is often hard, and does not feel particularly good.
When we enter into someone else’s concern, need, situation, life, we enter as servants, we are there to offer ourselves – body and soul – but it’s not about us. And yet this is where we learn the paradox the Jesus has been teaching us for two thousand years: ‘If any of you want to come the way I’m going, you must say “no” to your own selves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me and the Message [of the Gospel] you’ll save it.’ (Mark 8:34-35) By being willing to put aside our own comfort, our preferences, our desires in the service of listening deeply to the truth of another person’s life and needs, we will find out who we really are, the stuff we are made of, our deep-down value – a process of listening and learning humility before God and others that will lead to our salvation.
The clearest example of this I know is when I was leading youth mission trips to Honduras to do small building projects at two different children’s homes: building cinder block walls or sidewalks, painting. The expectation was that what we were going to do was good and helpful – and it was, on some level. But really, it would have been much more effective to take the money we spent on travel, room and board for twenty-five teen-agers and their adult advisors and wire it to Honduras where there are skilled workmen who would have done the work well – and have gotten paid, to boot. It was a great temptation for the kids to think that they were going to “save the world” and that no one else could do it. What they learned was that work is hard, and hot, and the different water, diet, and hot sun sometimes made them sick, and that their skills in building were often woefully lacking. But as they looked and listened and asked questions about a place so different from their own, as they got to know some of the children and the orphanage staff and observed that the very survival of these children depended on their ability to work together, to put someone else first, the teenagers began to see that the real “work” of their trip was to offer their love and attention to others so different from themselves. And in the process, they learned that their own value was not in grades, or sports, or social status, or having the right clothes or hanging with the right crowd, but in their capacity to give and receive love – just for who they were. Humility, freedom, and salvation, indeed.
At the Last Supper Jesus gave us a New Commandment: that we should love one another. That’s not just a vague feeling, but an intention to action and deep caring. And Jesus showed us how to do it, he gave us a real-life example to follow in taking on the role of a servant when he wrapped himself in a towel before dinner and washed the dusty, dirty feet of his followers. It was not an act of hygiene; it was a measure of hospitality and service.
The Church is in many ways a school for Christian living in the context of a worshiping community. Because we gather to worship and serve our Lord Jesus, we must also learn to serve one another. We practice loving service; we practice loving service – which means we don’t always get it right, it doesn’t always feel good, it’s not about us and what we like or want, but about who the Holy Spirit is forming us to be if we are to follow Jesus and serve God’s world. Our worship, our community life are all a training ground, a way to get in shape to that we may be of best use to God and those with whom we share this world God has made. In in the process of loving, listening, serving, often going against the grain of our culture and our own inclinations, we will find ourselves in the heart of God, which is our salvation.
Let us pray.“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.
Kneel at the feet of our friends,
silently washing their feet;
this is the way we should live with you.” Amen
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJMaundy ThursdayApril 13, 2017