Monday, March 28, 2016

Everyday Crucifixions

The crucifixion of Jesus has long been a powerful symbol. I knew early on that I must have a catholic soul when I began to notice that the empty crosses I saw in Protestant churches like my own Methodist Church had little impact on me even as the crucifixes of liturgical traditions touched something very deep within me. As I have had the chance to visit sacred sites around the world, the wide range of depictions of Jesus’ final moments on the cross have become a part of my very soul.

No doubt that is in part an expression of the Franciscan in me who processes his religion in an incarnational fashion, often experiencing the divine by means of experience of the good Creation. The Jesus on the crucifix is a real live human being, just like me. He suffers and dies, just as all of us will. This is a figure I can relate to.

The empty cross seems to evidence a desire a compulsion to sanitize this messy event, ignoring its roots in an inhumanity of which all of us are capable, and fast forwarding to the resurrection. The focus appears to be on the happy ending to the story where all of us who got the theology right get to go to Heaven and walk streets of gold.


In all honesty, the many attempts to explain away the torture and execution of Jesus by the Romans, reducing it to a manageable and self-serving theological formula, always have struck me as tenuous at best. The god constructed by theologians like Augustine and Anselm who cannot forgive human sin without human sacrifice is simply not a god worth taking seriously, much less worshipping. Peter Abelard gets a little closer with his model in which Jesus willingly dies at the hands of the Romans to serve as the example of the self-sacrificial love of G-d for humanity. But even in that construct, there is a sense that human beings are incapable of repentance from their tendencies to crucify the other without some kind of lethal jolt.

Why would that be?

I think it is only when one takes seriously what Jesus has to say about the suffering of the anawim, the little ones that Jesus loved, that crucifixions make any sense at all. Jesus did not need the Romans to teach him what it meant to be crucified. He knew it only too well. He saw it every day in the suffering of the poor he loved, the ones he fed, healed and reminded that G-d’s blessing began with them.

Jesus recognized that crucifixions happen every day. They are ordinary events in a world where the power, wealth and status are the media used in exchanges in which the powerless, the working poor and those at the bottom of artificial, socially constructed hierarchies are inevitably the losers. In many ways, our world is not terribly different from the world in which Jesus lived.

Truth be told, very few people knew or cared about the crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth on the day his followers now call Good Friday. There was no mass media in 1st CE Roman Palestine. Jesus’ crucifixion did not make the six o’clock news. The name Yeshua was a common name among Judean boys. Messiahs were a dime a dozen in Roman occupied Judea and none had ever succeeded in liberating the Jewish people.

While it is possible for Christians today to look back through the wrong end of the telescope and see Jesus’ execution by the Romans as a world changing event if not a theological epiphany, the reality on the ground is that this event was simply one more day like the others in Roman Palestine. Jesus died in an everyday crucifixion.

Matthias Grunewald,  Isenheim Altarpiece

Crucifixion is a potent symbol for me because I, too, have witnessed many everyday crucifixions. Little ones, unable to protect themselves against much stronger antagonists and irrational mobs, often find themselves in untenable positions. Sometimes the crucified get away with merely being humiliated, a psychic scar added to many others already borne. Sometimes the crucified endure actual physical harm and count themselves lucky to live to tell about it. Others prove not so fortunate, their disfigured corpses the grim reminders of what crucifixion becomes in the hands of men emboldened by their power but frightened by their own shadows.

Here are just a few of their stories that I have had the occasion to experience.

The teachers came up to the covered walkway outside my second grade classroom where I sat waiting for the bell to ring. “You need to come with us,” they said.

There had been a hurricane in our part of Florida just the month before and a canal had been dredged through our playground to drain off flood waters. We headed out to the canal. Amidst a gang of laughing, shouting boys stood a lone little boy in the white oxford shirt and khaki pants his mother had so carefully washed and ironed the day before. He was angry, crying. And he was covered with black mud that stood out in stark contrast to starched clothing he wore.

This little boy had been born with a speech impediment, a partial cleft palate, which rendered his speech very nasal and difficult to understand. The boys had been making fun of his impediment that morning, imitating him and calling him names. When he had had enough of their abuse he laid into them with his fists. They had thrown him to the ground, pounded him and finally picked him up and tossed him into the muddy canal. He had come out of the canal sputtering, covered with mud, angry and crying.

I looked at the angry, sputtering boy. He was my little brother.

“Take him over to your father,” they said. And so the two of us headed across the street to the high school where my father taught. We would take him home, change his clothes and return to school as if nothing had ever happened. But as we walked in silence over to find our father that morning, I found myself unable to believe what had just happened. What kind of human beings would do such a thing to a kid like this?

Crucifixions are the acts of bullies and cowards. Driven by an already low level of consciousness, group think inevitably tends to devolve to the lowest common denominator. Because the mediocrity of the common can never be drawn into consciousness, much less into question, it is precisely in these moments of low consciousness that the worst atrocities can occur.

The locker rooms at our junior-senior high school were like scenes out of a medieval dungeon. Dirty, mold growing on the walls, pipes exposed, some long since cut off and removed leaving chards of corroded metal sticking out of the poured concrete floor to rip one’s foot open, the inevitably foul smelling locker room was the place this seventh grader wanted to avoid at all costs. The sexually charged atmosphere in which muscular farm boys proudly displayed their fully developed genitals to shy, na├»ve boys just out of elementary school always made time in the showers an endurance contest.

Our school had only recently desegregated. One of the new students was an African-American eighth grader who was mildly mentally handicapped though physically well developed. G-d has been particularly good to him in the genitals department, something that hardly escaped the attention of his white farm boy classmates.

I looked up one day to hear shouting, laughing and screaming. The young black student was in the corner of the shower, a knot of white assailants pelting him with wet toilet paper and popping him with towels. I will never forget the look of terror on that boy’s face as a deluge of toilet paper wads and wet towels descended upon him.

At one point the target of their abuse grabbed a shower head and began squirting the other boys with hot water. They retreated. But in the process, water squirted up to the ceiling onto the exposed light bulbs far over our heads and blew them out.

At exactly that moment, the coach’s door opened. “Who did this?” he asked. Everyone pointed to the young black student. No one told the coach how that had happened nor did he seem to care. To this day I regret keeping my mouth closed, afraid I’d be blamed, too, if I told the truth or worse yet, the next candidate for shower room torture. The coach ordered the black student to put his clothes on and off they went to the office. By the end of the day we heard the kid was suspended.

Marion, Indiana (1930) 

Everyday crucifixions happen when power is abused and there is no one willing to confront power with truth. Sometimes, even truth telling cannot prevent crucifixion.

 Martin was one of the severely emotionally disturbed students I taught at Middle Six, the former black elementary school turned sixth grade center in Vero Beach in the late 1970s. I was one of a handful of white teachers in the predominately black school. With an IQ of 60, Martin was a challenge in class with a quick temper and a lack of social skills that led to stunts like peeing on the Encyclopedia Britannica in the library one day.

But what he lacked in intelligence and social skills, he made up for in his amiable nature. Martin had the ability to completely swallow up my shoulder with his mouth and I would know he was at school every morning when I’d feel his teeth gently grasping my shoulder. “Good morning, Martin,” I’d say, “Don’t bite me.” And Martin would grin. He had long since figured out that his teacher dearly loved him.
Just before I left teaching to attend law school, I took the boys out one day for an impromptu sex ed lesson. Some of them had made some inappropriate comments to the only female student in our class of 8 and so I went through all the common descriptions of sexual acts and gave them the anatomical and clinical terms for them. When we got to anal intercourse, Martin erupted: “That’s what my brother been doing to me and next time he does it, I’m gonna pick up a butcher knife and stab him.”

To her credit, Martin’s mother did attend the parent conference I called the next day. But when I told her what Martin had said, she shut completely down. “Is Martin in trouble at school?” she asked. No, I said, he was actually doing pretty well. “Then we’re finished here,” she said and got up and abruptly walked out of the classroom.

When I came home from law school after my first semester, I got together with some of my old teacher friends for dinner. As I asked about my former students and my replacement’s attempts to deal with them, I noticed that no one was talking about Martin. “So, how is Martin?” I asked.

I could tell immediately that the news was bad. “You don’t know, do you?” my friend said, “He is in prison. He stabbed his brother to death in his sleep.”

Poverty and the degradation that it produces are very effective means of crucifixion. Indeed, in most of the world, they are the norm rather than the exception. But sometimes everyday crucifixions can occur in the lives of the relatively privileged as well.

By my second year of teaching, enduring the homophobic epithets in the little town where I taught seventh grade language arts and social studies had become a constant liability. I incurred them everywhere, even the grocery store as I shopped for food for my animals and the large jugs of cheap Cribari wine that helped keep me numb in the face of this completely unanticipated onslaught. Rumor had it Mr. Coverston survived on a diet of dog food and wine.

I had fled from the little town to the country that second year of teaching hoping to find some peace of mind away from the middle school where I had come as a new teacher, fresh out of college and ready to save the world. But the tiny rural world in which I had landed absolutely did not want their kids to become critical thinkers and the world as they saw it needed no salvation. When they ran my best friend out of town mid school year because she was lesbian, I knew I was in trouble.

The Friday night party with friends was in full swing when the phone rang. “Is that a gay party you’re having?” the caller asked, voice dripping with acid. “We’re going to get you“ the caller continued. I hung up and refused to pick it up when my tormentor called back repeatedly, finally taking the phone off the hook. But the mood of the party was broken.

It was that moment that we noticed the pickup truck stopped in front of my little house in the country, lights out, cigarettes glowing in the dark, the silhouette of the barrels of rifles sticking out of the windows visible against the full moon. The music and the lights were immediately extinguished in my house and my guests huddled fearfully on the floor in the dark for several minutes until the truck pulled away.

Long after my friends had deserted me that night, I sat in the dark, rocking back and forth in fetal position, softly sobbing and repeating, “It’s never going to get any better.” And had my father not come to load up my things and move me out later that year, I probably would not have survived to tell this story.

Douglas Blanchard, "Station 11: Jesus Before the Soldiers," 

Passion of the Christ - A Gay Vision (2014)

Ugly prejudices are particularly effective instruments of crucifixion. They strip away their target’s humanity before nailing their souls to crosses of degradation. It’s always easier to hurt those who are not seen as fully human. And it’s a short leap from hurling ugly words to nailing hands and feet to crosses of wood.

Sometimes the victims internalize those words first and actually come to believe they somehow deserve the abuse they receive. But not always. Sometimes the victims prove unwilling to go along voluntarily with their crucifixion.

The base community was one of several we visited that day in the countryside of El Salvador. The fragile cease fire was maintained by blue shirted UN troops and the road along the way had been marked by signs warning of mines. The community was located in a former cattle farm owned by one of the famous Fourteen Families of El Salvador. The long barn had once housed Charolaise, beautiful white cows imported from France, who immediately developed skin problems from the tropical climate and its bugs and thus had to be housed in air conditioned stalls.

Campesinos had overrun the farm and now lived in the cattle stalls. “You may think we’re animals because we live in these barns,” the leader of the community said, “But this is the first roof I’ve ever had over my head.” Where had he lived, we asked. “Under the bridge.” He pointed to the wooden bridge we’d just come across to enter the farm.

About that moment several children came up around us, their bellies distended by malnutrition. “Two children in our community died last week, the oldest was 10. He was my son.”

A long, painful silence enshrouded the group of us. This base community had risen up to take over a beef farm because they had been pushed off their land by the large agribusinesses which have taken over much of the Central America. Over and over the peoples had told us they simply wanted three things: access to education for their children, to medical care and the ability to farm their own land and market their goods through cooperatives. The US backed right wing government had responded to their unwillingness to stay in their places of crucifixion with the brutal power of the military by day and their paramilitaries who rained down terror and disappearances at night.

Within 24 hours I would be back in the Bay area to begin my next semester at seminary. Some parishioners picked me up at Oakland International and took me to lunch. It was a Sizzler. In the middle of the restaurant was an enormous food bar running over with food. I thought of the people I had just met who were literally starving to death and looked at the food bar. Most of this would be thrown away within hours uneaten.

There are many forces that drive everyday crucifixions. But all of them hold one thing in common: they begin with the refusal to recognize the humanity of those they end up abusing. That is why the cross of Jesus speaks to so many of us. It is the medium of a history that extends long before and far beyond the confines of 1st CE Palestine.

It was the end of my two week Spanish immersion program in Cuernavaca. I had come on a shoestring and now I was completely out of money with a day left to go. I was feeling incredibly sorry for myself. Here I was in the middle of a foreign country on this ill-conceived calling to become a priest, no diocesan sponsorship, no guarantees of anything. I was confused, tired and just a little frightened. And now I was broke.

As I walked down the street to my host’s house, I noticed a small church to my right. It was a Franciscan church and the gate was open. I decided to go in and pray.

The wooden kneelers were uncomfortable. I softly wept, asking G_d why I was there, what this was about, why had He abandoned me. A gentle voice in my head said, “Look up.” And when I did I noticed for the first time that the Jesus on the cross there was indigenous. Suddenly two weeks of local history of Cortez’s brutal conquest of this area, dramatically illustrated by Diego Rivera’s mural on the rear wall of Cortez’s castle, came swimming into focus. These people had, indeed, been crucified.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself? I could feel my face flush with embarrassment, got up from my pew, uttered a word of thanks to G-d for a lesson delivered at the visceral level and left, making the sign of the crucifixion on my own body with holy water as I departed through the front door.

While I do not find explanations of Jesus’ crucifixion in which he dies for humanity’s sins compelling, it is beyond question that Jesus died because of human sin. The sin that manifest itself in Jesus’ execution hardly ended on Good Friday. Indeed, Jesus continues to be crucified every single day in the lives of the little ones he loved.

The crucifix reminds us of the lives of these little ones among us. It demands that we become conscious of their lives as well as our own. It invites our solidarity with them in their suffering and our willingness to do what we can to alleviate, end and prevent the cause of that suffering. The ultimate power of the crucifix is its ability to pose the troubling question of what roles we play in the everyday crucifixions we encounter.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Saturday, March 26, 2016

And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Soul

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  Luke 2:35

During my time as a seminarian at St. Philip’s Episcopal parish in San Jose, Good Friday was an almost frenetic day of activities. It began in the wee hours of the morning where I would take my turn watching with Jesus at the vigil in the garden, then on to Livermore Labs to engage in the Good Friday vigil for peace at the place where atomic weaponry capable of destroying the Good Creation was being assembled. From Livermore my friends and I would return to St. Philips to pick up the cross and the booklets for the annual ecumenical Stations of the Cross in nearby Alum Rock Park.

Good Friday always ended with the commemoration of the Three Hours leading up to the death of Jesus. It was a somber, quiet service that included readings, meditations and veneration of the cross after which the parish emptied out, the lights turned off and the candles all extinguished. 

On my third Good Friday at this parish in 1994, I had been studying Franciscan theology at the seminary across the street from my own Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. One of the figures we studied was Jacapone da Todi. When I read his laud entitled “The Lament of the Virgin,” I knew it would have to be read at the Good Friday vigil.

A Sword-Pierced Heart

I have always been struck by the pain that Mary must have endured as the mother of Jesus. Over the years, Mary has been constructed in many utilitarian ways ranging from the medieval female role model of the Virgin counterpoised against Eve, the Whore, to the imperial images constructed of Mary as the Queen of the Universe (whose shrine is a tourist attraction here out by Disney World).

None of these make much sense to me. It is the trembling, unwed teenage mother of this child “destined for the falling and rising of many….a sign that will be opposed…”  who must have been absolutely terrified as the venerable Simeon foretold her baby’s future that I understand. The pain of seeing your child die before you must, indeed, be much like a sword piercing one’s very soul.

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
whom you have prepared for all the world to see..

I recruited a classmate from the seminary, my dear friend, Deidre, to read the part of Mary and I read the part of the messenger. Standing on opposite ends of altar in the center of the parish, we hurled these anguished words to one another and the people assembled. To this day, this laud and the memory of that Good Friday vigil still pierces my own soul. And so I offer it to you this day of lamentation and loss with a number of images that have moved me: 

“Holy Mary, mother of G-d, be with us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Jacapone da Todi,  “The Lamentation of the Virgin,” The Lauds

Lady, Queen of Heaven, they have taken your son.
Hurry, come and see – they are beating Him,
Whipping Him brutally; they will kill Him.

            How can this be? My son, who has done no wrong,
            My hope – how could they have take Him?


Judas betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver;
For him, a good business deal.

            Magdalene, help! Help me – Oh, the anguish!
            They have taken him prisoner, just as I was told.

Lady, Queen of Heaven, come rescue Him.
Quick, they are spitting on Him;
Now they’re taking Him before Pilate.

            Pilate, I beseech you, do Him no harm;
            I can show you that those who accuse Him lie.

Crucify Him, crucify Him! According to our law
He who claims to be king must be punished.

            Listen to me, I beg of you, LOOK AT ME!
            Have you ever seen any suffering like mine?
            Will you not be moved to pity?


Bring out two thieves to be His companions;
Crown the pretender, crown Him with thorns!

            My Son, my Son, my Son, my loving lily,
            Who can console me in my anguish
            Son, whose gentle eyes once smiled on me,
            Why do you not answer me?
            Why hid from the mother who nursed You?


Lady, here is the cross
On which they will raise
The true Light of the world.

            O cross, will you take my son from me?
            And what will you accuse Him of,
            Since he had done no wrong?

Hurry, O sorrowful one,
They’re stripping your son,
They will nail Him to the cross.

            If they have stripped Him of His garments,
            Let me then see His bloody wounds!

Lady, they’ve taken one of His hands,
Pressed it against the cross,
And the nail has ripped through the flesh.
They’ve taken the other hand,
Stretched it out on the cross,
And the pain spreads and grows.
Lady, they’ve taken His feet
And nailed them to the tree;
They’ve broken all His bones and joints.

            Oh let me begin to chant the dirge,
            My son has been taken from me.
            O Son, my fair Son,
            Who was it that killed You?
            Oh, that they had ripped out my heart,
            That I might not see Your torn flesh
            Hanging from the cross!

Mother, why have you come?
Your agony and tears crush Me;
To see you suffer so will be My death.

            My anguish is not without cause;
            Oh my Son, Father and Spouse,
            Who was it wounded and stripped You?

Mother, weep no more; stay and help
Those dear to me, the friends I leave behind.

            Son, do not ask this of me; let me die with You.
            Let me breathe my last here at Your side.
            A common grave for son and mother,     
            Since ours is a common agony.

Mother, my heart in tears, I commend you into the hands
Of John, My chosen one; call him you son.
John, here is My mother, take her with love;
Have pity on her,
They have pierced her heart.

            My Son, You have breathed Your last;
            Son of a mother frightened and dazed,
            Son of a mother destroyed by grief,
            Tortured, tormented Son!
            Son without peer, fair and rosy cheeked,
            To whom shall I turn now that You have left me?
            Why did the world so despise You?
            Gentle and sweet Son, Son of a sorrowful mother,
            How cruelly You have been treated!
            John, my new son, your brother is dead:
            The sword they prophesied has pierced my heart.
            They have killed both mother and son,
            One cruel death for both,
            Embracing each other and their common cross!

Post-Script: La Pieta

In 1990, I visited the Vatican with my husband, Andy, and my family. We had split up to see whatever struck our fancy in the Basilica of St. Peter. I had attended a eucharist with German tourists under the massive dome and baldachino and then headed out to the graves of the popes below the altar. With some time on my hands, I saw a crowd of people near the doors and decided to see what they found so interesting.

As I got closer, I first saw the plexiglass protective barrier around a sculpture which soon swam into focus. It was the Pieta. Named for both the pity of a Mother holding the body of her dead son as well as her piety in remaining at this place of suffering even as all the male disciples had run away and hidden, Michelangelo’s masterpiece is absolutely stunning.

I found myself breathless as I drew closer to get a good look at the sorrowful face of Mary, a sword having indeed pierced her very soul. Many people around me were overcome with emotion. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a woman silently weeping. I turned to get a better look and immediately recognized her.

It was my own Mother.

Suddenly, the Pieta became real for me in a very profound sense. There is no pain like the loss of one’s child. Things are not supposed to happen this way. And when they do, there are no words to describe the pain. Michelangelo’s capturing of this moment is very powerful in its loving detail and yet its simplicity. And for that moment, watching my Mother weeping at this image of a lost son, I had just an inkling of what it feels like to have a sword pierce your very soul.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday – A Defining Moment

N.B. This is the sermon I will preach at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL Maundy Thursday, 2016. Mary Jane Miller's icons, from which the communion images came, can be found at , "Playing in the Dirt: The Inclusive Icons of a Self-Taught Artist," Faith and Forum, 48:1 (2015)

Tonight we have arrived at the high point of Holy Week. From this culmination of Jesus’ three years’ ministry, the events of the next two days will prove to be a precipitous tumble: betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, a shameful execution and burial. The joy of this last supper will seem light years away in just a very short 24 hours.

Holy Week began last Sunday as we commemorated Jesus’ riotous entry into Jerusalem. The ground before his donkey was spread with garments and palm branches, the crowd erupting into cheers: “Hosanna! The Son of David! The Messiah has come! Hosanna!”

Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

But not everyone is rejoicing. From the sidelines watch the nervous Temple guard who are alarmed at the attention this charismatic would-be Messiah is receiving. The entire enterprise of the priests and those who serve with them in the Temple as well as the lucrative income and social status it produces- all of that is at stake here. A prophet who convinces the people that they do not need ritual sacrifice conducted by priestly intermediaries for G-d to hear their prayers, who teaches that G-d makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike – that kind of prophet could be dangerous.

The members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council, depicted in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar say it well:

Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot. This common crowd, is much too loud. Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong. They are a curse. They should disperse.

Sanhedrin, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

But Jesus does not tell them to be quiet. The crowd does not disperse, it grows ever larger. And the Sanhedrin are not the only folks who are worried.

The Roman guard is on red alert, aware of the Jewish legend that if the Messiah is going to appear at any point, it would be at Passover. Jesus of Nazareth is hardly the first such candidate to appear at this time. But, unlike other would-be Messiahs, he has a large following. Perhaps more importantly, he does not appear to be afraid to die for this Kingdom of G-d of which he preaches. The Roman guard readily agrees with the Sanhedrin: He is dangerous. And like the Sanhedrin, they have everything to lose if the status quo of this Judean colony of the Roman Empire should change.

Within 24 hours, Jesus will have confirmed the worst fears of both of these groups. He will go into the outer courts of the Temple and disrupt business. Not only does he turn over the tables of the money changers who make purchases of animal sacrifices possible, the Roman tax collectors will also run scurrying for safety in the wake of Jesus’ outraged response to this business as usual on the Temple Mount. If you want an analogy to today, consider what would happen if someone set off a handful of smoke bombs on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange doing no real damage but shutting it down for the day. What impact on the American empire would such an event have? And what would we do with the person who created such a disruption?

What the Romans end up doing is hardly surprising. It is the Roman way to use any form of visual display as a means of propaganda. That includes the use of human bodies. Jesus will be nailed to a cross in a public display, his nakedness the element of shame added to the physical torture of crucifixion. And over his head, a cynical inscription will bear the words Here is Jesus, who says he’s the king of the Jews. The unspoken portion will be even more powerful: And this is what happens to anyone who thinks he’s a king in Caesar’s empire.

Emil Nolde, Crucifixion (1912)

So that’s the context in which tonight’s events take place. Knowing what is coming, Jesus gathers his followers for a common meal. But the meal this night will prove to be anything but common.

This day is called Maundy Thursday in liturgical traditions. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning to order someone to do something. We can hear the Latin root in the word commandment. And on this night a Jesus who knows he is going to die very shortly will leave his followers with a new commandment to follow in his absence: “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….”

Of course, this new commandment is not terribly new. It is essentially a restatement of the Great Commandments of the Hebrew tradition: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Similarly, it is a restatement of the Golden Rule found in the wisdom tradition of every culture around the world: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that he gives us two refinements of these ancient principles of his Hebrew tradition. First, he gives us his own life example as the standard of how to live into this commandment: Love one another…Just as I have loved you. Second, he reminds us that it is not what his followers say they believe that will convince others that they are followers of Jesus. It is only when they actually live into the examples Jesus sets for them that they will demonstrate to others that they follow the Way of Jesus: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.

Clearly Maundy Thursday is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. It is also a seminal moment in the development of what will become the Christian tradition. Even as Jesus is commanding his followers to love one another as he loves them, he demonstrates two ways of living into that commandment.

 Mary Jane Miller, Last Supper, India

The first is the eating of a common meal. Eating together is one of the greatest pleasures human beings know. It is difficult to eat together when one is angry with their fellow diners as anyone who has ever made the foolish error of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving readily knows. Eating together bonds people together and sharing wine together is often the mark of joyful celebration.

In all honesty, we have little reason to believe that any of the Gospel accounts of a last supper are historical. Indeed, tonight’s Gospel from John describes only a common chabburah meal, not a Passover Seder. John simply says they ate dinner together. So how does a common meal with friends become the ritual we call the Eucharist?

It is from St. Paul’s description of the customs of the early Jesus community that we begin to see this practice as a way of their remembering a time when Jesus was present with them: He took bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to them. Clearly from the very beginning a common meal was important to the way of Jesus.

In moments, we will enter into that tradition once again ourselves, offering the gifts of G-d to the people of G-d here at this altar. And because all of Creation comes from G-d, that means that all who are created by G-d are welcome at this feast. We who stand at this altar are never the guardians of sacred property charged with ensuring that only the holy receive it. We are agents charged with distributing the gifts of G-d’s graciousness entrusted with seeing that all people of G-d receive them if they choose.

Mary Jane Miller, Last Supper, Turkey

Jesus also provides a second means of demonstrating our love for one another on Maundy Thursday. The washing of feet in an honor/shame culture was always a visible reinforcement of class and status. The lowly washed the feet of the higher born and foot washing was a social obligation, a sign of hospitality. In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus who takes the servant’s role, washing the feet of his disciples who are none too comfortable about this reversal of roles. But there is a message in this symbolic action: It is precisely through our humility and our willingness to recognize the dignity of every human being that we reveal ourselves as followers of Jesus.

Before this night is over we will strip our altar of everything which would suggest
the presence of Jesus. For he will be gone, headed to trial and a painful journey ending in death down the Via Dolorosa, the Latin name which means the Way of Suffering. Even here Jesus is teaching us something important.

The Way of Jesus, with its commandment to love one another, to make a place for everyone in our communal celebrations and to engage others with a humility that respects their dignity, runs largely counter to the values of our own culture just as they did in Jesus’ time. Conventional values of empires are always centered on wealth gained through exploitation, order kept through the use of coercive force and status rigidly maintained by those of higher rank looking down on those they presume to be beneath them.

Marc Chagall, Crucifixion (1938)

These are brittle values reflecting a fragile, top heavy society. There is little tolerance for those who would challenge the values of such a culture, those who would call us to listen to our better angels as Jesus did. As the Sanhedrin and Roman guards so quickly recognized, this Way of Jesus is dangerous to the status quo. There is a reason that Jesus tells his followers if you would come after me, let go of all you love, pick up your cross and follow me.

So let us prepare ourselves to follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane this night enroute to the cross on Good Friday ever holding out our hope for a resurrection at the end of this Holy Week. But before we go, let us be present with Jesus this last night before his passion and death. Let us live into his new commandment to love one another as he loved us. It is Jesus of Nazareth who calls you to enter into the humble devotion of washing one another’s feet this night. And it is Jesus of Nazareth who invites you to come to this table, to share this common meal we have come to call the Eucharist.

For it is as true this night as it was on that first Maundy Thursday: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. AMEN.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)