A Thursday

In keeping with ancient tradition, we treat the period from the Maundy Thursday gathering through the first Easter celebration as one uninterrupted service of worship. Together, these “three days” represent Pascha (Hebrew “pesach,” or “Passover”), the great saving act of God. As in the Exodus story of old when the blood of unblemished lambs protected the people from death so they could pass through the sea to freedom, so it is for us: Christ our Pascha, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed for us; therefore we join the joyful feast (1 Cor 5:7-8).

Taken together, the death and resurrection of Jesus form the heart of the Christian Story, thus the Triduum represents the center of the Christian year. Think of the messianic prophesies we rehearsed in Advent, the mystery of the incarnation we pondered at Christmas, the revelation of the kingdom we studied during Epiphany. Then in Lent we readied ourselves for a dramatic endpoint, the cross, and in Easter we will celebrate an explosive new beginning, the empty tomb. Pascha then is both culmination and inauguration.

Ah, a deep and lovely reminder of the solemnity of this holiest of weeks, put in the perspective of the service of worship we participate in. Theologically astute and honoring. I agree with it wholeheartedly.

The post where I read this begins with this comment, “Bobby Gross explains why the next Three Days are one uninterrupted service of worship. Does this match up with your practices and understanding?”

Well, um, I, uh… let’s see here… my practices and my understanding, you say? So, my understanding would be indicated by agreement? Okay, I think I can sign up on that. My practices? Well… three days… of uninterrupted worship service? Hmmm… I’m not Eastern Orthodox, which I think somehow pack 100 hours of worship service within the span of the next three days. I am going to a service tonight, and then a couple tomorrow, and maybe a couple on Easter if I am able to get myself up for the sunrise service. So, that’s three days of services. But uninterrupted?

Well, in a constant liturgical stance of worship orientation within the extended context of this eucharistic event? No. I mean that’s probably a good idea. But the fact that when I started this post and mentioned Thursday my thoughts turned immediately to how more appropriate it would be for the movie Thor to open on May 5th rather than on May 6th suggests that I’m probably not going to make it three days without interruptions in my constant considerations of the death and resurrection of Christ.

And, to add more honesty, since I started writing this post that was meant to inspire musings on the constancy of attention on this holiest of weeks, I’ve checked Facebook twice, and even, just now, got back from warming up my coffee and making some toast (with butter). Three days? I can’t even make it ten minutes.

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Watch and pray. Not eat some toast and drink some coffee. The orientation towards worship is a difficult one to maintain, but one which demands our attention in the midst of the quiet solemnity of the prayer in the garden, the anguished honesty culminating in the celebration of God’s wisdom and victory, an acceptance of God’s work beckoning us to peace in the midst of our frustrations. Ah, now that is the attitude to maintain, just as the disciples were asked to in Gethsemane.

And yet…

I can’t help but notice how that passage in Matthew 26 ends. One expects, within the context of exhorted uninterrupted worship, for it to go something like this: And so the disciples found a new energy in the context of Christ’s prayers, joining him in his anguish and in his hope, celebrating together the life that God has given. With this stirring their minds and hearts, they prayed throughout the night, pondering the drama of God reaching out to all people, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit. When dawn came, they rose and continued their prayers in a procession through the gates, into the City of David, Jerusalem, a meditative march which, along the way, helped bring to mind the various memories of Christ’s teaching and his work, for which they praised him in uninterrupted solemnity for the lamb that was slain and then returned in glory and power for the salvation of all humanity.”

But it doesn’t go like that. It’s more like this:

“Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Okay, that interrupts our solemn pose a bit. But, let’s carry on with an attitude of worship and focus. Then, we might suggest, the passage should note that Jesus is irritated with these interruptions and disturbance by sinners, quiets them and they too are struck by the glorious demeanor of this Son of God, who gathers the betrayer and all who accompany him into his arms, sharing with him, through the beauty and wonder of this most holy of moments, a renewed sense of God’s light and love.

Wait, it doesn’t go like that, either. Jesus is kissed and seized. One of the disciples, the most holy of followers of the blessed Messiah, takes out a sword and whacks at the ear of a guard. Jesus calms everyone down, is arrested, and the disciples flee. Then there’s an overnight trial, confusion reigns. The disciples don’t know what’s going on and try to sneak a peek or get some news, but don’t want to admit they’re really followers. It’s a crazy night. Then the next day, Jesus goes before the governor, who doesn’t know what to do with him, is shipped off to see the king, who doesn’t know what to do with him, then sent back to the governor, who still doesn’t know what to do with him, but figures something should be done, and, of course, the best way to decide what to do is ask the nearest mob. Who, of course, choose the political insurgent to be released because if you’re going have a Messiah, it better be someone who actually, you know, Messiahizes, am I right? Let me hear an Amen! Let’s take that other guy, because we don’t know what he’s about, and beat him a while then kill him.

Meanwhile, the disciples and other followers of Jesus are all, “okay what’s happening here? This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. He’s the Messiah right? This is totally interrupting our solemn posture of worship during this Passover event.”

The whole event, the whole context, the whole week of Easter is one constant interruption after another. Palm Sunday begins with the expected show of Jesus being honored at his entrance. But then he messes up the whole mood by going straight to the Temple and knocking over the tables, and the banners, and the signs, and the baked goods tables, and generally causing a ruckus in a carefully orchestrated liturgical environment. It just doesn’t get better from there. Yeah, the supper in the upper room was nice, but why did Jesus and Judas have to have that passive aggressive interaction. Totally ruined the mood, confused everyone.

Then the arrest, the trial, the beating, the denying. How can someone possibly focus on the appropriate attitude of solemnity with all that clatter and confusion, and frankly, disrespectful clamor going on. I mean, what did Jesus wear to the Good Friday service. Not a tie or even a sport coat. Nothing! Talk about a nuisance. And what a mess! Then, of course, everyone couldn’t just carry on with their worship, they had to take the body (thus making themselves entirely unclean for worship — they couldn’t go into the Temple after that, now could they?), wrap it up, put it in the tomb.

To be sure, Sunday morning puts things in a little bit better perspective, but even on Sunday, just when the disciples are starting to sort out what it would mean to have a dead Messiah and organize a lovely little cult around the ethical teachings and moral examples of Jesus, this guy shows up first to women (to women!) and then sauntering on a road, then inside the house. Who is this guy?! What do you mean it’s Jesus? Can’t we just have some time to focus and pray here?!

Which makes me think. We want our theology, our worship, to be these nicely wrapped up bundles of coherent thoughts and uninterrupted focus. We want a good religious moment to help orient our spiritual posture towards the heavenly realities of God’s redeeming work on our behalf. With this prioritizing of a settled theology of God’s work and a constancy of solemnity through this grand liturgical moment we can have confidence in our place within the people of God, holy and redeemed in the salvation of Christ.

Meanwhile, Jesus is in the mud. The disciples are scattered. The people are confused. Interruptions abound. The times of prayer are imposed upon by betrayers and guards. The theology of a Messiah are shattered as the one we thought was our present salvation is beaten, defeated, torn apart, shown to be a weak man, not even able or willing to save himself. What is this Messiah, this one upon a cross? How is he going to free Israel. He’s not at all what they expected. How can one really focus during all this upheaval? Can’t we just have our nice little service, with our helpful words and our properly maintained attitude of musing upon the manifold works of God.

No. Because that’s not where theology exists in the New Testament or in the Old. Worship exists in the contexts of mud and distractions, faith is demanded in the midst of disappointment and confusion, where the end of the story not only isn’t known but seems to all accounts to be going a very bad direction.

We are called to stand with Christ, forgetting what is behind and pressing onwards to what is ahead, not in the absence of interruptions but in the expectation of them.

That is what occurs to me on this Thursday. Everything that started off so lovely, so ordered, so right, became, within a few short hours, distorted, ruined, scarred, tarnished. The expectations that the disciples woke up with on this Thursday morning were entirely undermined by Friday morning, and wiped out by Friday evening. They had developed an understanding of worship and theology which gave Jesus much honor, but had no categories for what Jesus did, and in the face of what happened with Jesus they scattered. Their theology could not handle God’s actual work, their faith could not be maintained in the context of constant interruptions to their preferred narrative.

That’s the lesson I’m taking from this Thursday. Not that I’ll have an uninterrupted three days of focused worship. I won’t. So I won’t lie and say I will, or even should. Nor will I have an uninterrupted bundle of theology. I won’t. God makes sure of that. By telling us what he will be doing, then going about doing it in a way that no one, not a single person, knew to expect.

He’s not asking for our focused solemnity. He’s asking for our constancy of faith in the midst of interruptions, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of events and people who make us doubt the constancy of his salvation. It is in the mud that we are to believe. It is naked and alone that we are to pray. It is in the midst of pain that we are to hold true to God’s calling. It is in the interruptions, not despite them, that our faith and worship truly are shown for what they are. We are to worship in the midst of interruptions. We are to worship because of them.

Because it might just be that in such interruptions is where the work of God really is happening.

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