Maundy Thursday 2019.
Paris Notre Dame.
The overriding image in our minds this week is of Notre Dame in flames. The foremost symbol of France’s religious, literary and cultural life has gone up in smoke. The double page picture of that suffering building will be mounted on the walls of Western Europe for many years to come, just as the picture of St. Paul’s in the London blitz stood for suffering defiance.
The blaze in Paris has eclipsed – for the time being – all other political tensions in the country. The President has suspended his electioneering and the ‘gilet jaune’ are even suggesting that the fire was created as a diversion to the bitter political wrangling. Powerful images such as this take us back to basics, beyond politics and beyond personality. They touch the well-springs of humanity. A blazing museum is bad enough but Notre Dame is so much more: yes it is cultural; yes, it is a time-line; yes it has shown defiance to all manner of attack but it is also a living dynamic place of change, of healing and reconciliation.
Powerful signs take us beyond ourselves and give voice to the invisible and unspoken in our world.
So, on this Maundy Thursday, when The Church reflects upon the institution of the Eucharist it is also the Church’s custom to wash feet. The three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – make much of the Last Supper event but St. John, the most profound of all the gospel writers, focusses on Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. While Luke in his account of the Last Supper records a quarrel among the disciples as to who will be the greatest, Jesus takes the role of a slave, the lowest of the low, whose job it is to wash the feet of dinner-guests.
Humble service like this is within the grasp of us all but so often we exhaust ourselves reaching for higher fruit. St. John is surely making the point that close to the heart of Christianity is simple concern for one another as well as the wonderful celebrations which life occasionally brings. Today we have a pope who is not afraid to step outside his narrow surroundings and wash the feet of prisoners, including women and Muslims in a local gaol. And in this Holy Week he is also acting as host to the leaders of the two warring factions in Southern Sudan, one a protestant and one a catholic. They have both been invited to spend some time with Pope Francis in his country retreat to seek a way forward to that country’s intractable problems. Such humble activity like sharing a meal, keeping silence together, washing feet, goes beyond our artificial differences for a short time. They are symbols of a greater, richer world that we all strive to inhabit.
As the prophet Isaiah said 3000 years ago, “This is the way; walk in it.” Amen.