Maundy Thursday (Year 2)
9 April 2020
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
At Evening Prayer on Google Hangouts Meet
Psalms 142 and 143
1 Corinthians 12:14-17; 11:27-32
The Book of the Lamentations was collected as a series of poem / songs following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 b.c. They were composed for liturgical use, or at least public recitation, on days of fasting and mourning. As such, they have historically been a part of Mattins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the first office of the day, usually begun around 2 or 3 AM, timed with the liturgy of Lauds to follow at dawn. These services have come to be known as Tenebrae, and we have celebrated a version of this liturgy at Saint Ignatius the past few years.
It is well known that the first four chapters is an alphabetical acrostic with one stanza for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the fifth has the same number of verses as the alphabet. When sung in the office, the Hebrew letters beginning each verse are also named and sung aloud, beginning at Matins in the small hours of Maundy Thursday with, “ALEPH How the Lord in his anger has set the daughters of Zion under a cloud!” or as in the first line of tonight’s Evening Prayer reading, “IOD The elders of the daughters of Zion sit on the ground in silence.”
These cries of lament from Hebrew Scripture have become an integral part of the narrative of our Holy Week, especially in these days as we draw nearer and nearer to Jesus’ death on the Cross and into the day of desolation and hopelessness when he is thought dead and gone for ever. The grief, sorrow, and sadness expressed in these texts are beyond measure and so, Christians for centuries have used the words and images of the Lamentations to express what those who journeyed down to the cross with Jesus, especially Mary, must have felt. We have used these words to give voice to our own feelings of despair as we imagine what it must have been like for Mary and the disciples. We have used these words to give voice to our own feelings of despair when we ourselves have felt utter desolation, as we may do in this moment, or as we may do in the days and weeks to come.
In our own liturgy of the Stations of the Cross, we take the words from the Lamentations and put them into the mouths of Jesus and Mary. At the thirteenth station when Jesus is taken down from the cross, we hear the words of Lamentations, chapter one when Jerusalem exclaims, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me” (1:12). No one ever has felt the way Mary felt, or how we ourselves feel, now that Our Lord is dead. And again at the same station, we hear from today’s reading, “Mine eyes are spent with weeping, my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out with grief because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city” (2:11). Our grief is unbearable, our senses overwhelmed.
Hearing the words from Lamentation as they are read it is easy to picture the scenes of Jesus’ walk to the Calvary and his mortification and scourging in the words of the Lamentations, “All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem.” Jesus is mocked and scorned, just as was Jerusalem in the days of the prophets. These poetic songs continue to give us a voice to express our own feelings of sorrow, frustration, and anger.
There is, however, something we must remember about these texts from the Hebrew Bible that mark them as having a different theological perspective from the way in which we understand both the Cross and the pandemic of which we are in the midst. The perspective of the Lamentations is one in which the writer feels that what has befallen Jerusalem was deserved and the misery the people suffer was somehow just punishment for their sins. God did this to them and they deserve it.
In Lamentations, that lovely expression of grief, “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me,” concludes in the original, “which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” In the eyes of the writer of these psalms, Jerusalem acted like a wicked woman and deserved what she got. When at the fourth station we ask about Mary, “What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgin Daughter of Zion,” our version gives as reason that she deserves such comfort, “for great as the sea is thy distress.” Lamentations, however actually says of Jerusalem, “For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can restore you?”
Jesus’ own suffering on the cross was not deserved, nor was his mother’s grief. And really, neither was that of the disciples. Jesus suffered on the cross, as I will discuss tomorrow, as an essential aspect of his humanity, that which he shares with us. Jesus suffered and died on the cross as an act of atonement, literally the work making us all one with him and with God. He suffered as we suffer. He is raised from the dead as we shall be. His suffering is great and terrible. His mother’s grief is inconsolable in that moment. “Great as the sea is her distress,” and yet she is no fallen women, deserving, in the eyes of many people then (and, unfortunately still now), her punishment.
Right now all of us around the world are experiencing dislocation, sorrow, suffering, and loss; each of us to a different extent, each of us in our unique circumstance, some more acutely than others. Whatever we suffer, whatever pain we feel amid the havoc of this pandemic illness is not our fault. Despite what religious leaders on one extreme and political voices on the other say, we did not deserve this, and this is not, I repeat not, God punishing us.
We can use the language of Lamentations to express our feelings. We do it every year and it is beautiful and effective. However, let us never forget as we read these lessons in full, in their context, that our circumstances are not their circumstances, our understanding not their understanding. We know that God loves us and suffers with us, stays with us in our distress, is our comfort and strength and does not harm us. We do a pretty good job of that ourselves.
As we celebrate this Maundy Thursday like no other, without the Eucharist that Jesus instituted this day or the foot washing he performed for his friends, let us remember that both of these actions were supreme expressions of his love for his friends and for us. That both those actions, the foot washing and the Eucharist, show us that God loves us, cares for us, ministers to us, gives us sustenance, and will be with us always, especially in the midst of suffering, pain, and death, and even here on Google, when two or three are gathered together in his name. Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Monday in Holy Week, 7 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume