Friday, April 06, 2012

Lent: Maundy Thursday

The church I grew up in didn't observe the church calendar (Advent, Lent, Holy Week, etc).  The closest thing we had was the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering wreath, which was an enormous wreath with four white C7 Christmas lights attached to it.  As the amount received for the Christmas Offering reached another thousand dollars (or whatever that year's increment was), another light would be turned on.  It wasn't until years later that I attended a church that used a similar wreath to celebrate the four weeks of Advent and I realized where they'd come up with the idea.   

So you can imagine my confusion when my middle school friends started talking about giving something up for lint.  My mom was a third (fourth?) generation Dallasite, and my Dad immediately adopted Texas as his home state once he got there, but I was born and lived the first seven years of my life while they were in exile from the promised land-- i.e., above the Mason-Dixon line. (you can tell a Southerner because they know what the Mason Dixon line is, and consider it a reasonable topic for dinnertime conversation).  Don't worry, because they moved back South as soon as my dad could get a job there. The lingering effect of those first seven years is that I said "pehn" for "pen," the subject of endless amusement to my friends, who all said in correct southern-speak, "pin."  Can I borrow a pin?  Mine's out of ink. 

So my parents had to explain to me that giving something up for lint didn't have anything to do with laundry fuzz, it was Lent, the forty days before Easter, when people give something up in order to prepare for the celebration of Easter, as a way of identifying with Christ's suffering.  My friends would give up sugar or soft drinks or watching TV.

I'm a sucker for symbolism and ritual, so I was enchanted by the idea, but it was Not The Thing in our church.  We just went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, all year round.  There was no differentiation of different seasons or holidays (except for Easter, but that mainly meant that we got a new dress with matching shoes).  We sang Christmas carols at Christmas, and "Up from the Grave He Arose" at Easter, but other than that, it was just the same damn thing every week.

No, of course I'm not resentful, why do you ask?

So I never heard of Maundy Thursday until I was in college and started attending a lovely Episcopal church.  Maundy Thursday is part of Holy Week, which is kicked off with Palm Sunday (which commemorates Jesus's entry into Jerusalem), followed by Maundy Thursday on.... wait for it.... Thursday, then Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter is on Sunday.  I'm being silly here because I had a moving experience at our church's Maundy Thursday service last night, and I'm (apparently) still too cynical to play it straight.

So.  Maundy Thursday is the church service that celebrates the Last Supper.  In Episcopal churches I've attended, there is a three-hour service on Good Friday that goes through the sequence of events of Jesus's trial, torture, and crucifixion, so Maundy Thursday is only about the Last Supper.  There is often a foot-washing ritual, as Jesus washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper.  But our current church doesn't have a Good Friday service, so our Maundy Thursday service telescopes the entire sequence events of the last few days of Jesus's life into one service.

It was beautifully done last night.  The sanctuary progressively darkened as readers read the story, until at the end, three people carried out the cross, wrapped in black.  It was very  moving.  But the story is awful.  The last hours of Jesus's life were appalling--betrayed by one of his own, deserted by the others, whipped, beaten, tortured, and then crucified.

When I was five or six, a helpful Sunday School teacher painted the picture in even more graphic detail than what is in the Bible story.  Did you know that the whips that were used on him were probably cat-o-nine-tails, commonly used by Roman soldiers in whippings, which were a group of leather thongs wrapped together at one end, with glass shards embedded in the other end?  The forty lashes Jesus probably received had been enough to kill people on other occasions.  And then the Crown of Thorns pressed onto his brow.  And the nails into his feet and hands.  And then once he was up on the cross, he would have had to push down on the nails in his feet to lift himself up so he could breathe.  And then the sword piercing his side.

It was horrible.  Here we were, this semi-circle of little five and six year olds, listening to her tell the story in twenty minutes of vivid detail.  And of course, she ended with: Jesus wouldn't have had to do all this if it weren't for YOU.  Jesus died on the cross of his own free will because of your sinfulness, so that you could go to heaven when you die.  If you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior, he went through all that for NOTHING.  I was completely and utterly sick that Jesus went through all that for me.  I couldn't line up fast enough when she did her little invitation at the end, asking did anyone want to accept Jesus as their Personal Savior?

Until last night, I'd never quite recovered from this.  In the past, when I thought of Easter, it wasn't about the renewal and rebirth of the resurrection, it was about the sick ball of guilt and shame in my gut because Jesus was tortured and killed and it was all my fault.  That's why I never went to see the movie The Passion.  Just the thought of it made me sick to my stomach.  But last night for some reason at the end of the service, I was finally able to get some adult perspective on that childhood guilt, that childish belief that everything is your fault, and let it go.  phew.  Like a great whoosh of tension and shame leaving my body.  I don't know how else to describe it.  Renewal of the best kind.  And hey, I only had to be 50 to figure it out.  Some of us are just slow.

Happy Easter.  However you celebrate this weekend, as the return of Spring, the Passover, or the resurrection of Jesus, or just a chance to get great candy at half price, I hope you have a great day.

p.s.  this is the post that I've been putting off writing since I started this series of posts, but it ended up being much different than I thought because of last night.  It wasn't so bad after all. :-)


  1. Not bad? It was terrific! (A wee bit graphic, but ya know, it needed to be.)

    Very meaningful and lovely. So glad you no longer feel that guilt.

    Happy Ostara to you and yours!

    1. Thanks, Julie! I hope Ostara is a great day for you and yours at the Burrow, too!

  2. I want to go back in time and arrest that Sunday school teacher for child abuse. That is what that was. Plain and simple. Evil.

    Moving on here, I'm so glad you had a healing and meaningful Maundy Thursday service. Hugs!

    1. Thanks, Karen. I think so, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. We just weren't old enough to be able to process that.

      Hope you have a lovely day!

  3. Excellent blog post my friend. And I would guess I was in that same Sunday School class as that lesson, or one very similar to it, rings in my head. Who knew that we would be in our 50's and still recovering from that dang church.

    We went to church on Saturday and Sunday with TMO and TSiL, who go to a fabulous Anglican church in their community. Filled with worship and joy. And one of the things that flitted through my mind, as we were singing and taking communion with REAL WINE (egads, I could hear my grandma turning over in her grave) was, "Good golly, all these people would have been labeled as suspect and definitely "un-believers" at F___B____ when I was growing up. I would have been labeled as suspect for the wrong headed action of raising my hands in worship."

    1. I almost said "Debbie was probably there, too." But it's a common enough idea in that denomination so it could have been anytime. I love Anglican churches, but when we moved here the local one was in shambles, so we started at First Pres. Now we're way too involved, we could never switch. Belated Happy Easter.

  4. Easter PTSD! Good heavens.

    I once saw one of these "o the tortures of Jesus" videos at church (as an adult) and it didn't do much for me. Cause there are plenty of human beings who've gone through as much pain and torture as Jesus, and without the comfort of knowing they're god. I think too much focus on the suffering is going at it from the wrong angle.

    1. see, this was so much a part of our tradition that it always surprises me when other people don't know about it, or think it's crazy, or whatever. Very helpful, that. :-) It's hard to get perspective on your own past without something to compare it to.