The Triduum

Holy Thursday – March 29, 2018

A few years ago, one of my former students invited me to go fishing for redfish. He had hired a guide whom we were to meet at a bait shop on the road that leads to Fort DeSoto County Park. My former student had a new GPS device for his car, and he was anxious to test it on the trip to the bait shop.

The GPS navigated us successfully through St. Petersburg (not a challenging task). As we approached the Bayway Bridge that leads to Fort DeSoto, the GPS began to give some very strange driving directions. I insisted that the GPS was malfunctioning; the driver remained steadfast in this trust of his new toy.

As we arrived at the same intersection for the third time (without getting any closer to the bait shop), I offered my help with the issue. I said, “Let me do that for you.” By those words I meant, “Let me unplug that infernal gadget and throw it out the window.”

About the time that I was reaching for the GPS, its owner deciphered the problem and we were back on our way to a successful day’s fishing.

The meaning of words and statements can vary widely depending on context. The statement, “Let me do that for you” is a good example of the variety of meanings that language can communicate. When spoken by a parent to a young child trying to tie shoes, the statement is an expression of affection and nurture. When spoken by a teenager to an elderly grandparent struggling with technology, the statement can be an act of condescension. When spoken by a priest grown impatient with a GPS device, the statement can be an act of Ludditism.

In tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus made a statement to his disciples that amounted to saying, “Let me to that for you.” Jesus and his disciples travelled on foot during their journeys; most people at the time did so as well. Upon entering a house, it was desirable to wash the road’s dust from one’s feet. In households which could afford servants, this task was performed by a servant. By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus was taking on a menial role in relationship to his social inferiors. It was for this reason that Peter objected to the act. (Jn. 13:8)

The author of John’s Gospel had a rather sophisticated theological intent in mind when he included this story in the Gospel text. John’s Gospel has no Institution Narrative (Jesus’ words over the bread and wine at the Last Supper). The absence of the Institution Narrative prompted a later editor to add quite a lot of Eucharistic references to an earlier section of the Gospel. (Jn. 6:22-59)

The Gospel author did not intend to ignore Eucharist; rather, his intent was to offer his unique understanding of how the Eucharist was celebrated in his church congregation. The washing of the disciples’ feet takes place within the context of a Passover meal. The members of John’s congregation would have immediately made the mental connection to their own Eucharistic celebrations. For the first few centuries of Christianity, Eucharist took place within the context of a communal meal held in a congregation member’s home.

The contextual meaning here is unmistakable. The washing of the feet of the disciples is a symbolic explanation of Jesus’ selfless death on the Cross. In a very real sense, Jesus was saying to his disciples, “Let me do that for you.” By taking on the role of a household servant, Jesus was explaining precisely what he intended to accomplish on the Cross.

Jesus’ obedient death on the Cross brought the possibility of reconciliation and new life to the whole world. Jesus accomplished this on our behalf because our human nature, left to its own efforts, is not capable of the humility, repentance, and gratitude that constitute faithfulness to God. Jesus did this for us because we are not capable of doing so ourselves.

On an obvious level, we are obliged to imitate Jesus’ example of humble service. As his disciples, we are obliged to treat others with humility, to offer forgiveness, and to be grateful to God for all God’s blessings. These acts, however, do not constitute redemption for us.

Jesus embraced humility to a degree that terrifies our egos. He practiced forgiveness in a way that looks like failure to us. He expressed gratitude to God in circumstances that would lead us to curse our lives and our fates.

Imitating Jesus is necessary for us, but only as a second step toward redemption. Before we try to imitate Jesus’ example, we must first realize that he made our faint imitation possible by choosing first to do this for us.

My suggestion that the Crucifixion is the equivalent of Jesus saying, “Let me do that for you” can be understood in myriad ways. American culture would understand that statement as belonging to the same cloyingly sweet sentimentality that has reinvented Christmas and Easter as secular feasts of conspicuous consumption. Please don’t misunderstand my intent. We are not redeemed from our own sinfulness or the moral evil in the world by an act of sentimentality. We are redeemed because Jesus did for us what we are not capable of doing for ourselves, namely, embracing the humility, forgiveness, and gratitude that are God’s will for our lives.

The world around us might be a much more polite place if we practiced humility, forgiveness, and gratitude with everyone whom we met. Most people have the intention of living in this way, and most of us find it to be an impossibly high standard to maintain. Fortunately, Jesus has done this for us already. We do not have to rely on our own strengths; we have only to receive the gift of redemption.

Good Friday – March 30, 2018

Over the past few decades there has been quite a lot of archaeological and historical research published about Hebrew religion in general and the Exodus event in particular. There is now widespread agreement that the Israelites were not actually a slave labor force held captive in Egypt before the Exodus; it is much more likely that they were in Egypt as a mercenary army. The entrance into the Land of Promise, following Israel’s sojourn in the desert, was probably not a single migration; it is much more likely that there were multiple incursions into Canaan over a long period of time.

There was an editorial in today’s paper that described these seeming historical anomalies as religious rhetoric intended to form a specific corporate identity among the People of Israel.(*) The revelation on Sinai marked a major shift in Hebrew religion. Consequently, there arose the necessity to build and consolidate a communal allegiance to the Mosaic Covenant. The Exodus story and the later commentaries on the event intended to build a consensus about Israelite identity.

Today, Jews continue to celebrate that communal identity. The annual celebration of Passover begins tonight after sunset. During the Passover meal, the story of the Israelites’ deliverance out of Egypt is read at family tables. This story, called the Haggadah, is much more than a mere narrative of the Exodus events. It is a narrative of the entire history of Israelite religion and the Israelite People. The Haggadah doesn’t intend to teach history; rather, it intends to inculcate and reinforce a communal identity.

I mention all of the above because the Passion Narratives in the Gospels have been called a Christian version of the Haggadah. The Passion Narratives do not limit themselves to recounting historical events; rather, they are trans-historical in the sense that they point the reader far beyond the events retold.

John’s Passion Narrative illustrates this point very clearly. Great drama unfolds in John’s Passion. Jesus is betrayed and arrested. There is a brief skirmish. He is put on trial first for religious crimes and then for civil crimes. He is unjustly condemned, and his disciples abandon him. Ultimately, he is sentenced to a shameful death. The Narrative concludes with a surreptitious burial.

If the Passion Narrative intends to make us feel sorrow over Jesus’ misfortunes, it falls short. Jesus was surrounded by violence, betrayal, intrigue, fear, and sorrow, but he maintained a preternatural calm. If the Passion intends to impress us with Jesus’ stoic attitude, it leaves us a little cold. After all, what good is done for us by Jesus remaining unmoved by his own suffering?

Like a Haggadah, the Passion Narrative intends to inculcate and nurture a communal identity. The Narrative is addressed to the baptized and those about to be baptized. It is instruction about who we are called to be and how we are to conduct ourselves.

Jesus remained faithful to God even though his most trusted friends betrayed him; we are to be faithful, trustworthy, and loyal, regardless of the circumstances. Jesus remained unperturbed by the violent people and actions around him; we are the People who forgive our enemies. Jesus suffered great injustice without complaint; we are to give our lives in service of God and neighbor.

It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the drama of the Passion Narrative, but to do so is to lose sight of the meaning of the Passion. An event in the far distant past offers us little more than historical knowledge or sentimentality or cause for admiration. The Passion Narrative does not present Jesus’ death as a past event. Rather, the death of Jesus is an event that intends to transform our present lives; it intends to make us God’s People who are always faithful, forgiving, and loving.

*Ruth R. Wisse, “To Appreciate Freedom, Remember Slavery,” Wall Street Journal (March 30, 2018).

Easter Vigil – March 31, 2018

A friend of mine used to collect BSA motorcycles, a British marque. Lucas Electrics, another British company, manufactured the lights, magneto, and switchgear on BSA bikes. Lucas Electrics’ components were notoriously unreliable. Their lights and switchgear were so unreliable, in fact, that British bike collectors refer to Lucas Electrics as “The Prince of Darkness.”

Tonight’s first reading describes God’s creation of night and day. (Gen. 1:5) God first created light, then separated the light from the darkness that existed before Creation. (Gen. 1:2-4) Light was God’s first gift to the world and a reflection of God’s presence.

Part of the homespun charm and theological insight of the first Creation Narrative in Genesis is its applicability to daily life. The first few lines of the Creation Narrative, for example, can be understood as a metaphor about the life of faith. John’s Gospel adopted the images of light and darkness to teach about faith and unbelief: believing in Jesus as Savior is like walking in the light; living without faith, however, is like being stranded in darkness.

What is the darkness that John’s Gospel describes? Let me offer an opinion. Classical western philosophy describes happiness in life as deriving from either pleasure or the exercise of virtue. The hedonistic philosophy of Epicurus described happiness in life as the result of taking delight in material things. Democritus, on the other hand, described happiness as residing in the soul and resulting from an ethical, virtuous life. If we can be honest with ourselves, both of these options amount to living in darkness.

Despite the fact that hedonism, selfishness, and narcissism are very socially acceptable today, they remain fundamentally anti-social acts. Pursuing a life filled with personal pleasure relegates all created things, including other people, to the role of being instruments to provide pleasure to the self. Eventually, the pleasure of using other people for one’s own enjoyment leads to the pain of isolation.

A life of virtue might look like a more noble option, but virtue for its own sake leads inevitably to self-righteousness. With my sincerest apologies to those of you who drive hybrid automobiles, the rest of us aren’t impressed by the thriftiness of your Brave Little Toaster; the apparent virtue of green living can be as isolating as hedonism. On a more serious level, when religion or even personal ethics is practiced for the primary purpose of developing virtue, the practice is unavoidably self-serving; it will degenerate quickly into egotism. Both hedonism and self-serving virtue lead to the same result: a life isolated from other people.

My friend, the BSA collector, maintained a sense of humor about the unpredictability of his motorcycles’ electrics. Despite his upbeat attitude, his bikes would often leave him stranded in the darkness of night. Being stranded in spiritual darkness is quite another thing, altogether. It’s not possible to live in the darkness of selfishness, falsehood, or faithlessness, and remain upbeat at the same time; this might explain a lot of what goes on in people’s behavior.

The Epistle from Paul’s Letter to the Romans says that there is an alternative to spiritual darkness and social isolation. The alternative to the dead-end strategies promoted by secular society is to die to the old life of sin, be born into the new life of Grace, and live in hopeful expectation of the Resurrection. Rather than choose between enjoyment and virtue, the life of faith affords both joy and virtue.

Having been born into the new life of Christ already through Baptism, we have the opportunity at this Liturgy to renew the vows of our Baptism. All of our Lenten penances and prayers have led us to this moment when the Lord refreshes and strengthens the new life of Grace in us.

These vows, which we will repeat in a few moments, intend to be more than an idealistic ritual. When made with sincere faith, these Baptismal vows are light in the darkness: a way of life that strengthens and sanctifies all our relationships.

Even the most reliable technology or appliance can break down and leave us in literal or figurative darkness. There need be no such uncertainty in our relationships with God and neighbor. Baptism into the death of the Lord Jesus allows us to live in joyful and righteous light.