Harrowing Of Hell
April 6, 2023

Maundy Thursday

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

Here we are, at Maundy Thursday. Our participation in Christ’s Passion was already real throughout this Holy Week, but it’s getting really real now.

So, a question for you: How would you choose to spend the last night of your life? I had a friend who used to say that if the bombs were coming, and he knew we were all about to be annihilated, he’d head to Pioneer Square, buy the best drugs he could find, and get as wasted as possible. And I’d say, “Really? That’s how you’d spend the last hours of your life?”

Because I would probably head to QFC for a pint (or two) of Ben & Jerry’s, maybe even spring for a whole Dungeness crab. Then I’d go home, scroll through Facebook, and watch bad reality TV until it was all over. Which, come to think of it, is not much different from the Pioneer Square plan. A drug is a drug.

The thing is, when bad times come, most of us seek to escape them somehow. If we can’t physically escape them (because let’s face it, if the bombs are on their way, even my adorable Mini Cooper, which is quite fast, isn’t going to outrun them)—if we can’t physically escape them, we’ll try to escape them mentally, emotionally. We’ll seek some kind of anaesthesia so we don’t have to be fully present to the worst of it.

Kathleen Norris has said that the saints are those who are willing to go through life without anaesthesia. If there were no other evidence—and I assure you, there’s plenty—I would know by this alone that I’m no saint. I want all the anaesthesia: just knock me unconscious while the worst happens, and wake me when it’s over!

But that is not Jesus’ way. I don’t know exactly what Jesus knew about what he was facing as his last hours approached, but we know some of it. We know he was aware that he would be betrayed by one of his closest friends, that another, one of his very closest, would deny even knowing him, and that most of the rest would run when things got hard. We know that the thought of what was coming made him sweat blood in the Garden, and beg his Father to get him out of it.

It was a tough night, and Jesus’ soul was a soul in anguish. Now, I cannot imagine facing what Jesus faced; being only human and not divine, I would never be capable of experiencing what Jesus faced. I’m finite, and I cannot suffer, or do anything else, infinitely. But Jesus knew he was facing the worst night of his life, which was also the last night of his life, and in his humanity, he too was looking for the “Exit” signs. But because of who he was, and because his will was always conformed to the will of his Father, in heart-wrenching prayer he finally comes to “Thy will be done.” And once on the cross, he will refuse even the wine the soldiers offer—his last chance for a bit of anaesthesia—so he can be fully present to everything that happens.

Because of who he was. This is a question we’re dwelling on this Holy Week, and it comes up again and again in the gospels, doesn’t it? “Who is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” “Are you he that is to come, or should we look for another?” The Voice of authority says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But the voice of the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread…” If.

People often complain that Christianity is obsessed with doctrine, with orthodoxy, with being “right.” We do have a long and tragic record of putting “getting it right” before behaving lovingly, or even ethically. And where another religion might offer a way of living well, we offer doctrines, and dogmas, and creeds. It’s kind of embarrassing at times.

But there’s a reason for this: while other religions may be built around certain stories, or certain precepts, Christianity is built around the claim that there was a man who was also God. And when you make a claim like that, you’re going to have some explaining to do. Who is this?

The last night of Jesus’ life offers a rich answer to the question of who he was. What does he do with the time he has left? We hear that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And everything he does that night is consistent with that love. Scripture tells us that “God is love,” and this night, under an extreme of pressure I can’t even imagine, we see that enacted. What does a God who is love do on the last and worst night of his life?

He starts out by shocking them: he is their teacher and Lord, but he takes the role of a servant, even a slave, and washes their feet. In a few minutes, we’re going to be reminded of how awkward and uncomfortable that is, but for them it was even more so. It wasn’t a rite, it wasn’t a churchy, liturgical thing. It was a basic, menial hygiene task that would be done by the person in the room with the lowest status, not the highest.

Now Peter, who often says what the others are probably thinking, flat out refuses to let Jesus take this role. Peter is still cherishing illusions about who Jesus is: the conquering hero. But Jesus is insistent: If I don’t wash your feet, you can have no part of me because you’re not dealing with who I really am. You’re dealing with a fiction, a fantasy, of who you think I am: a conquering hero, not a suffering servant. I am, he’s saying, modeling for you what I want you to be: a community of people who serve each other, even when it’s hardest.

What else does John show Jesus doing on this terrible night? He gives them a new commandment, a new mandatus (which is where “Maundy” Thursday comes from). He commands the disciples to, quote, “love one another, just as I have loved you.” Later on he prays for them:

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Not “that they may be the same,” but “that they may be one.” This has been called the most violated commandment in history, but we’ve had all of Lent to grieve over our sins. My point for tonight is that in giving these commandments, Jesus is showing us who he is, and what a God who is love does—with special urgency when time is running out. And he is forming us as a community: not one that always gets the theology exactly right, or one that punishes those we deem “inappropriate.” Not one that has the secret handshake so we can always be sure who belongs and who doesn’t, but a community of love, of unity in our diversity.

And then, of course, he also gave us the most precious gift of the Eucharist. On this night, before the events began that would lead to his death, but already engulfed in dread, Jesus’ mind was on these same gutless friends, and he gave them—and all of us who would come after them—a parting gift that ensured that he’d be present to us all our lives, and to the end of time. The generosity of that unspeakably precious gift, so lovingly given, at a moment like that…it’s almost too much to handle.

This is the night we remember the giving of that gift. What was Jesus doing by giving us the Eucharist? I picture the disciples looking baffled as he handed around the bread and the wine: “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” What was that supposed to mean? I see them feeling uneasy, but still not believing this is going to end in his death. They wouldn’t really get any of this until Pentecost. He was the Messiah! They had staked everything on his becoming King of Israel, and his death was no part of that dream.

But it was the reality, and Jesus knew it. So before leaving them, he gave them a gift that would make him present to them—and to us—forever. Present—really present, the Church teaches us. Unlike some parts of the Church, when we receive the bread and wine, we aren’t just remembering Jesus, looking backward. In the Anglican tradition, in the Catholic tradition, we aren’t just looking back at Jesus: “Oh, he was such a great guy.” No. We are mystically entering into him and his sacrifice right now. Jesus chose to be fully present to those he loved that night—without anaesthesia—and he made a way to be fully present to us, the spiritual descendants of those first disciples—fully present, always.

And I think Jesus paused in his anguish to give us this gift because of who he was, and is. He loved us, because he is love. And he knew how much we’d miss him, how we’d long to have something of him to hold onto. He gave us that, and in doing so, created a Eucharistic community, made out of love, which would live in love and bear witness to his love, until the end of time.

So what about us? What is our response to all of this? It’s pretty simple, really: Because of who he is, and who he has made us, we make the choice, on a regular basis, to lay aside the anaesthesia, the distractions we use to get through the pain and grief, the boredom, and the general cussedness of life. We choose to imitate our Teacher by serving, by loving, and by being fully present to him and to each other. He has called us to be a Eucharistic community, a community of presence. That’s how we live.

Who is Jesus? He is God, he is love, and he gave his life so that we too could be drawn into the circle of love that is the Holy Trinity, and become love to God and to each other.

This night, and the nights and days that follow, through the rest of the Passion, the Resurrection and Ascension, all the way through Pentecost—they’re all for this purpose: to form us into a community of love.

It’s a great adventure! It’s the great adventure! So let’s go easy on the anaesthesia, so we can be present to it all.

If we live like that, then whatever night turns out to be our last, we will have been faithful to our call.