Lent is a time of conversion, a time for changing ourselves and our actions as we strive to better live into our baptismal vows. Holy Week makes a fitting conclusion to this time of conversion, in that what we celebrate during Holy Week radically challenges the way we see the world, at times standing on its head things we thought we knew.
On Holy Thursday, we remember and celebrate Christ’s institution of the Eucharist meal, that is, Jesus taking bread and wine him during his last supper with his followers and friends and teaching his disciples about how to remember him. A memorable part of the Holy Thursday service is that the priest washes the feet of people from the congregation, mirroring Jesus’ action of washing the feet of his disciples before the meal. We may be so used to observing this foot washing on Holy Thursday that we forget how radical a thing it represents. In Jesus’ time, when sandal-wearing would have been prevalent, foot washing was part of hospitality. A home owner would provide a bowl of water and offer a servant to wash the feet of those who came to visit. Jesus, the son of God and leader of this group, takes the role of a servant, showing hospitality and waiting on his friends. In so doing, Jesus overturns the servant-master hierarchy, becoming the servant himself. In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that central to being a leader is serving others.
While the master-servant hierarchy crucial to the social order of Jesus’ time may seem far from our experiences, there are other hierarchies that mark relationships between people and groups of people in our time as well. Globally, we can witness a hierarchy between so-called First World nations and those nations of the two-thirds world; we also experience a growing gap between the rich and poor, a hierarchy that fed into the Occupy movements and events. What other hierarchies do you experience in your life and what can you do to reverse them? How can you live out the call to provide hospitality and service to others, particularly those who are in the greatest need?
On Good Friday, the focus of the liturgy is the cross. It is a solemn day; the altar is stripped bare and no organ plays, as people reflect on the meaning of the cross. Many churches practice the veneration of the cross, when people come forward to kneel before and touch or kiss the crucifix. Again, when we step back to reflect on this practice, what a seemingly odd thing it is to kiss an instrument of torture and death. Yet we do so not to glorify violence but to remember the cost of what Jesus did because of his love for all humanity. The cross reminds us that following Jesus is a path that requires sacrifice. Loving God and neighbor in a world of violence and sin may sometimes cost us dearly.
Unlike the earliest followers of Jesus, who were afraid for their lives because of their association with this man, in the U.S. today we can claim our Christian identity without fear of being persecuted for it. Or can we? Truly living our Christian identity in the midst of a consumer culture that propagates values at odds with Christian ideas of justice does necessitate sacrifice and may lead, if not to out and out persecution, to a strain in our relationships with those who feel comfortable standing firmly with the values of the broader society. What sacrifices have you made to follow Jesus and to show your love for God and neighbor?
As if the reversing of hierarchies and the call to follow the road of the cross is not enough to make your brain do flips, then comes Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the promise of new life. Death is not the end; raising Jesus from the dead, God shows us that love is stronger than any other force in the world. In our world, it is hard to believe this Easter message, so bombarded are we with images and stories of illness, death, violence, tragedy, and sinful interactions between people. Perhaps the most “Christian” thing we can do in our lives is to try to live not in sadness, hate, and fearfulness, but with bold joy, love, and hope, trusting that God’s love indeed has the power to do all things.