Thursday, March 24, 2016

For the Love of Symbols

So, in case you didn't know, today is (was) Maundy Thursday.

Traditionally, Maundy Thursday is the day during Holy Week that we commemorate Jesus washing his disciples' feet and commanding them to do the same to others ("Maundy" comes from the Latin word for "command"). Many churches do this by washing one another's feet.

My church does not.

It's not particularly surprising. Many people are uncomfortable with feet, and even though this is kind of the point of Jesus' commandment (Jesus calls us to do A LOT of uncomfortable things, and service isn't meant to be just what's easy) we here in our privileged (used as a descriptor, not a condemnation) community aren't really used to being asked to do things we're uncomfortable with. So we try to avoid it.

But *I* wasn't comfortable with a purely cerebral, observational Maundy Thursday service. For Pete's sake; we're remembering Jesus' last supper with his disciples, his last night interacting with his friends, a night named for what we're commanded to do, and we're just gonna sit back and WATCH?? Not if I have anything to do about it. 

So I created a new ritual, one that doesn't involve feet but that still touches on the important message and command that Jesus gave to his disciples (and us)--I hope. I filled bowls with dirt and broken pieces of pottery, and asked people to dig a piece out, thinking about someone in their life who needed their love, support, or service.

The prophets tell us that God is the potter, and we are the clay. But we have been broken and muddied by our sin. And yet, Jesus calls us in our own brokenness to wash and serve one another, as he has served us.

Afterwards, each person took their piece of pottery and brought it down to the baptismal font, where they washed and dried it. They were invited to bring the cleaned shard home as a reminder of our call to serve and care for one another.

What fascinated me about this ritual was the many different levels of symbolism that unfolded as we walked through it together. I stood by the dirt bowls so that I'd be available to help anyone who had trouble getting to them (they were at the top of the chancel steps) or locating a piece. I discovered that people's approaches to retrieving a piece of pottery were as varied as the people themselves were. Some went immediately for the piece closest to the top, touching the dirt as little as humanly possible. If none were readily apparent, they'd poke at the dirt with the tip of one finger until they saw a little bit of pottery sticking out, and grab it quickly.

Others, in contrast, dug their whole hands in, seemingly trying to find the dirtiest shard closest to the bottom of the bowl. I think I even saw some people running the dirt through their hands a few times before they even began to look for a piece of pottery.

The symbolism is pretty much self-apparent here. Do we approach service as something distasteful, unpleasant, to be done with the minimal effort and involvement possible? Do we avoid getting dirty for others, even when we know that there's hand sanitizer available immediately afterwards (which there was)? Are we just going through the motions of Jesus' last earthly commandment to us? Or do we dig in, relishing the mud and the dirtiness that we experience together as human beings, not denying our brokenness but using it in empathy to lift one another up? Do we help those that it's easiest to help, or do we dig into the depths of human suffering and not stop until we hit the bottom?

And then there was the water. Oh, friends, that water!

As Andrew mentioned in his sermon, this was a beautiful, profound image of Jesus truly taking on the sins of the world--a reminder that we desperately need. It's one thing to talk about Jesus' love for us; it's another to see a visual representation of just how much we needed that love. On Sundays, we normally see a pristine baptismal font full of cool, clear water. Tonight, we were left with a muddy bath surrounded by soiled towels. The remnants of the dirty work of God's people through Jesus Christ.

And that's exactly the way God wants it to be.

Before we left after worship, I told Andrew that I wanted to get a picture of the font before anyone emptied out the water or put away the towels. When I got close enough to get my snapshot, I saw the cross at the head of the sanctuary reflected in the water. I took a beat to really process what it was that I was seeing.

How perfect is it to be able to see Christ's sacrifice reflected through the service that he commanded?

Friends, I don't have the words to adequately describe what I witnessed tonight through these people of God, both those who dug in with both hands and those who were less eager. Suffice it to say, it was  a Spirit-filled experience. It was a gift--and I thank you.

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