The theatre of the liturgical year helps us to picture, almost in real time, what is happening during this Triduum. We have an opportunity between now and Sunday to participate in the Gospel, to place ourselves inside the story of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. For those who cannot go to Church at this time, we can take the readings of each day and ponder them in our own homes.
Holy Thursday is unsettling.
We sense the brooding storm of Christ’s Passion. We sit with Christ at table with the disciples, and we ponder on what we would be thinking, what we would be saying.
We feel it is wrong for him to be cleaning our feet, yet he gently remonstrates with us, saying that he is called to serve and not to be served. Christ takes care as he washes our feet. It is not necessarily like we see every holy Thursday in Church, not a simple act of ceremony repeated every year from a list of parishioners. No, this is a real act of love from Christ to disciple. It is his way of telling us what we are to do, how we are to be, who we are to follow.
We look at Christ as he institutes the Blessed Sacrament, and we cannot help but wish that he stayed with us, that he did not have to die for us. Do we perhaps even sense a flicker of alarm, fear, in Christ, as the storm approaches?
We take our place with the disciples – our spiritual ancestors – and accompany Christ to the Garden of Gethsemane. We fall asleep. We are no good, not from our own perspective anyway. We had but one thing to do, which was to keep watch as Christ prayed. We are tired, worried, frightened even. But still, we failed, despite our efforts.
Tonight, when we feel the limits of our own humanity – falling asleep when Christ asked us not to – comes a startling example of Christ’s own humanity. Whilst we slumber, Jesus is at prayer. From the Gospel narrative we know that he was thinking of his Father in heaven, praying fervently that this cup of suffering be taken away from him. He sweats blood. He is afraid. But he qualified all of this suffering with the simple prayer: Thy Will Be Done.
This is a reminder of his mother’s response when the angel gave her the news that she was with child. Not every aspect of the annunciation would have been a great shroud of joy: we know already that she was afraid, because the angel had cause to tell her not to be. And there was both the social ridicule and the danger of being pregnant in her position. But she gave the same response: Thy Will Be Done.
So, in this extraordinarily human moment of Christ’s pain and suffering, comes the teaching of his mother Mary. The lifelong teaching by example.
Gethsemane is on the outskirts of the desert. It is tempting to think that Christ might have looked out into that vast wilderness as he prayed, considering this question: shall I just disappear? It would be easy for him to just disappear into that wilderness, just as he so regularly disappeared into the crowd whenever the religious leaders became angry with him. Perhaps some part of his humanity was telling him that he doesn’t have to suffer what is to come.
But he did not take this course. He knew that his entire mission was to do the will of his Father.
Thy Will Be Done.
When Jesus was finally captured and led away from his friends, what is our reaction? It must be some small part of what the disciples went through, as they looked at each other, desperate, sad, and terrified. They were all of these things on behalf of Christ. But they too were at risk. And we know that St Peter, the first Vicar of the Church, the Rock, denied Jesus three times. He tried to shake him off out of fear for his own life. He tried to melt into the crowd, yet stay close enough to Jesus to perhaps hear some news of him.
Tonight, unlike normal, many of us will not get to sit in silence before the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of repose. This vigil is one of the most powerful moments in the liturgical year, when the Tabernacle is stripped bare, the Blessed Sacrament being taken into a side Altar. Those hours of parochial watching give us a strong, unsettling sense of desolation. As a precursor to his death tomorrow, Jesus is no longer in the great Tabernacle. In the silence, we sense that the nature of the presence of God in the Church is whittled down to a little container with Christ inside, as though we are at the precipice, as though we are looking into a great void, almost touching godlessness. And we have only a little piece of bread, transformed into His Body, to give us hope.
We may not be able to participate in that way tonight. But we have an amazing opportunity to do something perhaps even more powerful. We sit in our homes during the coronavirus lockdown, and our time has come to hold vigil in a profound way. The Church buildings of God are locked down, we cannot get to the tabernacles. We cannot receive the sacraments. And so we can think of the desolation in the hearts of those disciples, who suddenly were without Christ, who didn’t know what was going to happen next.
And we can think back also to the Passover, in which families come together in their house, unable to leave, praying to God that his will be done. The mark of blood on the door is something we needn’t do ourselves. Tonight, our spiritual mark is praying, keeping spiritual watch in a time of desolation as Christ is imprisoned and tried.
We, too, know nothing of what is going to happen next. When will our churches reopen? When will we be able to receive Communion again? Whilst the disciples pondered, Jesus was doing his Father’s will, and they did not understand. And later on, after the Resurrection, they came back together again, through the action of the Holy Spirit, and the Church grew. St Peter joined with others in the upper room, and Christ appeared to them. They were forgiven by the God who is also fully human and understands our limitations.
So let this time be one of waiting patiently, taking the lead of Jesus and doing the will of God. Whether or not we are naturally contemplative, let us do our best this evening to enter into the desolation of Christ’s betrayal, his being taken from the disciples. Let us place ourselves there, and open our hearts to what is in fact our own opportunity of Resurrection, in the days to follow.