My fiancée works at an African Methodist Episcopal church in the City. On Thursday of Holy Week, I went with him to his church to observe Maundy Thursday. It was my first Maundy Thursday experience ever. I could not have told you before then what the heck Maundy Thursday was. To be honest, I just thought Maundy/mourning, a little pre-mourning before the actual mourning. Kind of like the way salad is supposed to prepare your digestive system for the real food.
As it turns out, Maundy Thursday has nothing to do with salad. I found out, thanks to the back of the bulletin, that Maundy means commandment, referring to the institution of the Last Supper, at which Jesus commands His disciples not only to “Do this in remembrance of me,” but also to love each other with humility. In addition to the Eucharist, some churches also do a foot washing ceremony.
This church did not do a foot-washing ceremony, but it did serve the Eucharist. When it came time for the Eucharist, the pastor said the liturgy. It was liturgy I have heard in the other Episcopal churches I have attended, and my home church incorporates some of it, but it hit me differently this time. Within the liturgy there is an exhortation, prompting us to make restitution for the wrong we have done to others, being ready to extend and receive forgiveness. This is also, not coincidentally, in The Lord’s Prayer, which is also said before accepting the bread and the wine.
For me, I hear: if you have not taken responsibility for your actions, go and take care of it now, before participating in the sacrament. Or else, let this time of sacrament serve as the opportunity to make amends.
It seems an elementary thing to me now, as I write this down and share it with you. Yet, the image in my mind on Maundy Thursday was not an internal acknowledgement of my sin, your sin and being willing to have a forgive-fest go down hypothetically. The image in my mind was one of people literally getting up to cross the room to make amends or stepping out of the sanctuary to make a phone call. Hell, maybe even leaving the service entirely to go actively participate in the command to extend and receive forgiveness.
If you’re like me, and I suspect you are, you might be thinking,
“Yes, that’s all well and good, but it is a little more complicated than that. I’m still right pissed at some folk. My cream is curdled. My hide is chafed.” (Insert preferred euphemism here.)
And, yes, you’re right. I don’t have an answer for that. But, I think if we take the Eucharist seriously, if we take the message of Jesus seriously, we have to be willing to realize the immediacy with which we are called to respond to relational schisms.
Maybe responding internally and imagining the hypothetical situation of forgiveness is part of the process. Inauthentic forgiveness doesn’t help either, so there has to be time to cultivate sincerity and that takes time. But wrapped up in our hurt, pride or complacency there is a call to action. The Gospel is action. The Gospel is not a hypothetical or imagined reality. Remembering Christ is remembering the gift of love and forgiveness. Loving and forgiving is how that applies to our lives. Without the action, we are just a bunch of people who sing together and swallow some bread and wine as part of some seemingly cannibalistic practice.
I’m not writing this because I’ve figured out the mystical way to rise above myself and forgive people. I’m writing this because I struggle to forgive. I struggle to love. Many Sundays, before communion, I have heard the call to make things right with my neighbor, I feel a twinge of obligation and at a loss about what to do, and then head up to the front to take communion anyway. And all I can think to say in those times is Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.