Thursday, March 28, 2013
A Day of Remembrance
"This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.
You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord;
throughout your generations you shall observe it..."
Though the Roman liturgy tags this day in Holy Week as "In Cena Domini" = "At the Lord's Supper", on Holy/Maundy Thursday historically there was a lot more going on than merely the recalling of the the Holy Eucharist's institution. In the morning the bishop and his clergy led a service of Reconciliation of the Penitents, a rite no longer in use. Those known in the community for "notorious" sins gathered, after a long period of repentance, outside the church door, barefoot, clad in long grey garments, and prostrate, holding unlighted candles. After many prayers inside the church, including the Litany of the Saints, the bishop went out to the candidates and invited them into the church aisle, lined now with the clergy on each side: "Come, come, come children, hear me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord." Once inside, the bishop grasped the hand of one penitent who took hold of the next-in-line's hand, and so on through the group. Led by the bishop, holding his crozier in his other hand, the line moved forward into the center of the church where the actual prayer of reconciliation was offered, the absolution given, and where each penitent received holy water and incense, hearing the bishop's words: "Arise, you who sleep; arise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you."
Since 1955, at some time later in the day, the annual Mass of Consecration of the Holy Oils takes place. The bishop, assisted by his clergy, consecrates three kinds of oil: 1) Oil of the Sick, for the Anointing of the Sick or the Dying, and the blessing of bells; 2) Oil of Catechumens, for the blessing of the baptismal font, Baptism and Holy Orders; and 3) Sacred Chrism, used in Baptism, Confirmation, the consecration of bishops, and for the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
Finally, at the conclusion of the evening Mass "In Cena Domini", the Communion elements for the Good Friday service are taken in procession to a side altar of repose, a procedure which was done after each celebration in earlier centuries. Following this the main altar is stripped all its adornments, so that it appears somewhat desolate to our modern eyes. In fact, the altar table is a symbol of Christ, and in ancient times it was customary to uncover the table after each Eucharistic celebration. That, of course, would drive today's Altar Guilds crazy! The idea was to "set the table" for each celebration, just as the table in a home is covered for a meal. Nevertheless, the stripping of the altar is a reminder of the poverty and humility of Jesus in being stripped of all that he had.
For me the key idea of Maundy Thursday is "day of remembrance". To remember comes from the Latin, meaning to be mindful again, and not just in a casual, fleeting way, but such that we relive and even repeat in a newer way what it is that we're remembering. One of the most profound descriptions of what it means to remember, to celebrate, to do Eucharist, which I've treasured for years is in a 1967 book called Footnotes And Headlines: A Play-Pray Book. Its author was a voice out of the late 60's: Corita Kent (1918-1986), then Sister Corita, I.H.M. who taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and later died of cancer.
Corita spoke of two sizes of people: the small, individual ones, and the large ones, the community "of two or of everyone". She spoke of how something changes when people come together, especially when the size of a community grows. "...the tribe gets to see itself, know itself, and discovers further ways to act and receive." The celebrating gets to be more complex and there's need for organization. For that people need to take on various tasks and roles"...so they can explain to the whole race who it is and where it can go (in between God who is at the beginning and end of this race)."
Applying such concepts to the Church and to the surrounding culture, Corita notes that, if those involved only know "physical facts and know no poetry or irony, [they] will be out of the celebration...And the party will miss [them] and be less good or maybe not even go on." She says that the result may well be that people "go hungry and become weak and unable to act, unable to express and explain themselves to each other. They will disintegrate. They will not be able to remember together who they are (which is what a celebration is). And so [they] will begin to do the opposite of remembering, [they] will dis-member."
What happens in today's liturgical readings is a process of remembering at various time and in various situations. In Exodus (12:1-14) Yahweh instructs Moses and the people on how they're to carry out the family/community meal, after which Yahweh will lead them out of the slavery of their Egyptian masters. A lamb slaughtered at twilight. Its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. The lamb then roasted and eaten hurriedly in the same night, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They're to do this with traveling clothes on, sandals on the feet, and walking staff in hand. Yahweh says: "It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night..." Yahweh emphasizes that they are to remember, to be mindful of this grace-given experience of being saved, and not just on fleeting occasions, but as long as they live, "throughout your generations."
Paul remembers for the Corinthian community (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) what he "received from the Lord" and handed down to them to reenact over and over, i.e., the account of what Jesus did with bread and wine at the last gathering with his disciples before his death: "This is my body...This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this...in remembrance of me." Paul reminds his hearers and us that each time they/we are mindful again of this as they/we gather together, "...you proclaim the Lord's death [and resurrection] until he comes."
Finally, John's Gospel (13:1-17; 31b-35) remembers the great unselfish love of Jesus which is the whole point of Holy Week: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Jesus, in essence, preaches a sermon-in-sign: he removes his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, and begins to kneel before each of his disciples, washing their feet and wiping them dry. He reminds them, Peter specifically, the drama-king who resists the "economy" rather than the "deluxe" foot-washing, that they shouldn't expect to understand now what he's doing, "but later you will understand." After he finishes, he spells it out for them: "...if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them...Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
That's what they and we are to remember, to be mindful of again and again, to reenact in celebration together, both in church and in life! Corita again (Footnotes And Headlines, pp. 2-5 & 9):
"So if small bodies could remember ceremonially they could understand the celebrations of other communities and then the great revolution could take place, the whole human running race could finally sit down in a big circle and eat together, and having once shared a meal, could no longer be enemies. They would know who they were through these expressions and could somehow work it out, having admitted the importance of playing it out. Then we could all get up and run again.
Always there remains this need to explain to each other that we are good. We all have a constant need to be reaffirmed. The single [individual] needs this. The whole human race needs a yea, needs the large ceremonial pat on the back that says
'Come on, come on!
We can make it!'"