Friday, March 25, 2005

Maundy Thursday

Last night was Maundy Thursday. About twenty-five of us gathered in KUCC's aptly located upper room to revisit the symbols and words of the Last Supper. Those who had arrived earliest had set up tables in a U shape, with chairs set around both the inside and outside of the U. White tablecloths covered the tables, a thin strip of torn purple fabric running lengthwise down the center of each table. Each place setting held a small ceramic dish of salt water, a goblet, and a plate with fresh bitter herbs and a boiled egg. Ceramic pitchers and larger bowls were placed at the end of each table, and plates between each pair of place settings held several pieces of matzoh bread.

We took seats inside the U across from Nell and Mary, both in their eighties. Next to Mary sat Gloria, whose retirement we celebrated during one Sunday's service by gathering into a circle and doing a ritual blessing of her transition into a new phase of her life. Melissa's husband Eric sat at the corner of the tables and quietly strummed a guitar as we began our "agape feast."

Unlit votives in small glass vases were placed evenly along the purple cloth, and we began by sending one lit taper down the table, hand to hand, until all the candles were lit.

Rich read the story of how Jesus washed his disciples' feet saying, "Unless I wash your feet, you have no part in me." Then he asked us to ritually wash each others' hands, passing pitchers of water, empty basins, and towels along the table to pour water over the hands of our neighbors.

When we had served each other this way, three voices took turns speaking words from the Bible describing the cruel oppression the Israelites suffered in Egypt. "We hold these bitter herbs in our hands," Melissa recited, "as we remember the bitterness of oppression and injustice in our world." We dipped the herbs in the salt water before us symbolizing the tears wept everywhere by victims of violence, domination, and hatred. We ate the salty herbs and sat silently in memory and sorrow for the bitter places in our world and in our lives.

Rita read to us from the book of Exodus the story of how the Israelites left Egypt in such haste that they were only able to take unleavened bread dough with them, and how when they complained later about their hardship God promised to rain bread on them. We broke pieces of the matzoh bread and held it, contemplating the places we see hope and promise given even in the midst of bitterness and despair.

Ah, my village. We ate a true feast, with salmon, boiled eggs, a delicious salad of wheat berries and fruits, and breads; as the meal wound down we suddenly saw Rich pushing a small wheeled table toward us. "Can I interest you in the dessert cart this evening?" he asked. Everyone erupted in laughter, but he mildly served dessert to us all, one by one.

After the meal we set about having communion. I realized that my goblet was still full of my last water refill, but would be needed to hold the grape juice people were beginning to pass down the table. I grabbed my goblet and gulped down water as fast as I could. I noticed Gloria, across from me, had made the same realization and was also drinking frantically; she caught my eye and started laughing, trying to stay quiet as Rich began to speak the ritual words of the communion. Of course her laughter gave me a case of the giggles, which nearly had me dribbling water down myself as I guzzled it down. When I set my glass down Gloria leaned toward me and whispered, "I'll go drinking with you anytime!" By turns solemn and merry, it was a perfect feast.

When we held the matzoh bread and thought about the places we find hope in the darkness of the world, I thought about how much that community is one such place. This little church with maybe twenty people in attendance on any Sunday readily offers shelter and food to the homeless. Once a year they hold a three-day Festival of Hope at which they sell handcrafted goods to raise money for organizations that are working to fight poverty. They raise over ten thousand dollars in that weekend and keep not a penny of it for their own expenses. They are serious about being "an open and affirming, justice-centered faith community," but they do so calmly, without a hint of self-righteousness or smarm, and have no patience for the kind of faux-pious arrogance that loudly claims to be the only right kind of Christianity. Gay? Come on in. Shacking up? Have a seat. Agnostic, like me? Welcome to the family.

I don't really believe in God, you know. I don't take literally the narratives in the texts collectively called the Bible. I don't know if the historical person of Jesus ever existed, and I'm (to say the least) skeptical that his physical body came back from the dead.

What if, after all, that's not the point?

What if the main point was the way this Jesus character is emphatically identified with the poor, the helpless, the rejected and the hopeless?

What if the main point actually was, "Love your neighbor, and oh by the way when I say 'neighbor' I mean the person you find most unacceptable?"

The world is full of bitterness and pain; I believe that. We wreak pain on each other, and the earth wreaks it on us too. A hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed in the last two years alone, another two or three hundred thousand in the tsunami in December. Genocide continues in Sudan, and AIDS ravages Africa, and in my own tiny selfish world many of my family members and my friends' family members are suffering.

But peace and hope can be brought even into the heart of the bitter places, and I believe that as well. It's not altogether reasonable, I know. Still, I can't help believing, we can do each other good even when our leaders and our natures conspire to discourage us.

So I go to this tiny church and do the small things I can do to spread goodness. I write to my senators and representatives, I stay at the church on Monday nights once in awhile, I recycle and take the bus and try to meditate just like your archetypical tree-hugging bleeding-heart liberal. And I do it knowing all the time how small I am and how large and varied the pains of the world. I know constantly that I cannot hope to change the entire world.

Still, maybe that is the point. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it, and all that. Every time the darkness seems to have triumphed, somehow that light keeps flickering. Even through three dark days or entire dark ages when it seems to have been vanquished utterly, it is always reborn. I believe that, too.

And it is, after all, good news.