We are in it now, the last race, the last heartbreaking mile. Yesterday we walked with our Lord as he entered Jerusalem’s Eastern Gate astride a colt, like a king, the ground strewn with cloaks and branches. He rides a donkey, not a warhorse. A sign of peace? Of poverty? And why riding at all? A king does not walk, but is carried, or rides? They knew who he was. They cheered. But now the dusty streets have been swept clean, cloaks retrieved, dusted off, and the muttering has started. “Who does he think he is, making that show?” To the Jews, he was maybe the Messiah long-awaited, but where is his army? Where is the fight to kick out the Romans? To the Romans, he was just another Jewish peasant, a potential troublemaker with wild ideas. To the Romans, another mystical cult with less pizzazz than the ones, legal or not, which flooded the Roman world from the dubious East. And they did better parades. So did Rome.
I have always found Palm Sunday to be deeply troubling. Not a triumph. A false hope. It mocks. Ahead is that long, frustrating, bloody road, one which teaches us everything if we dare to shoulder the burden of his Cross and walk with him.
In the parish we are buried in the realities of the Easter baptisms to come hard on the Triduum, the many services, the organization. Maybe Tenebrae. Perhaps a Chrism Mass for the clergy. The fuss over the water bowls and towels for Maundy Thursday. Choir rehearsals. More choir rehearsals. Stripping the altar, is the altar guild all organized? The all night Vigil with the reserve sacrament, the last remnant of the Food of Grace, the Body and Blood of our Lord. And Good Friday for all its emotion and gravitas is a zoo of preparation and not much sleep for anybody. And we are not even at the Great Vigil of Easter, and those baptisms we have prepared for. We are so busy. Can we keep focus on why we are living out this week? Is it all for the end consumer, the lukewarm pew sitters who manage to attend something? Or the annual visitors on Easter? So long as the service is short and not at a strange hour.
The week begins with John 12:1-11, and the costly ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, an act of love, an act of deep understanding of what was to come. The home of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Feet are funny in the Middle East. Revered and reviled. Don’t ever show the bottom of your foot or throw a shoe. That is a serious insult. On the other hand, you don’t enter God’s holy places shod. You show reverence to parents and leaders by kneeling at, touching, or kissing their feet. Feet are covered in the dust of the road, street, even home. Feet must be washed often. Guest’s feet are washed. Parent’s feet are washed. Washing feet has meaning for hospitality, religion, and normal life. And people walked, everywhere. All the time
Maundy Thursday isn’t easy.The Eucharistic Table is often so familiar we may have to really focus to remember that this is the commemoration of the institution of the Sacrament of the Bread of Life, the Blood of Redemption. And we hear the pronouncement that one present will betray their Lord, the one whom he would give the sop of bread. Dipped in sweet charoseth or bitter herbs of Seder? Or wine? The work of Satan? A necessary act to fulfill the economy of salvation? But a betrayal hurts. Jesus will be betrayed again and again in these last hours. To teach so much, to try so hard, to face such a task, and the sorrow of knowing that even those around him can hardly hear the message. They hardly know who he is. This is a task he must face alone by pure faith, trusting and obeying his Father. He walks this road alone.
The period prior to the trial raises the greatest anxiety for me. Once the horror is under way, with the positioning of the politicians, from the Temple and from the Roman government, as they negotiate their own mutual power positions, it rolls on in the same way as we see daily in the one-sided trials of the accused, not only here, but everywhere, those who are poor, minority, who don’t please the good and the great.It becomes loud and strident, now full of lawyers and reporters and, in some cases, protesters. But it is at the dinner table, in the Garden, and for Peter outside, too afraid to proclaim his friend and teacher as innocent, that the hopelessness builds, the sorrow, the stomach turning fear. This is the crunch of our lives, our daily lives. Make it stop, God, please, please, make it stop. But it doesn’t stop.
And the foot washing. There are those amongst us whom, if they called me up to wash my feet I would have to use Peter’s protest. No, I owe so much to you. Don’t do this. Don’t kneel before me. But of course we all must and we all must allow it. Jesus says (Jn 13: 34-35), “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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 is the teaching. In our parish, the children wash feet, four-year olds, six-year olds washing baby feet, the feet of each other, their parents’ feet. We try to teach them young. But often they need little teaching.They get it.
But it begins on Monday, with one of the four narratives of women who, a few days before the Supper in the upper room, anoint Jesus, honor him, worship him, revere him. Kiss his feet. Dry their tears with their hair. It appears in all four Gospels (Mt 26: 6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, Jn 12:1-8). It is variously framed as a sinner who loves in gratitude, but isn’t Lent about all of us who sin? And our gratitude? A gratitude which we struggle to express with such passion, such love? A woman who loves her Master so much her tears stream out, and perhaps her sobs. Or Mary and Martha, in the house of Lazarus. How can we pour costly ointment or our tears on our Lord’s feet? How can we live in that reverence, that love, that passion? So we wash each other’s feet. We worship Christ in each other as he taught us. We know him, and in knowing him and his teaching, we are in him as he is in us.
Next week, it will be Easter. He will have risen again. We will celebrate, but we must never forget. That joy comes at the cost of the Cross.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.