Thursday, 29 March 2018

Derby Cathedral Holy Week: Maundy Thursday Sermon


This evening we enter a space between two kinds of intimacies: that of the body washed and prepared, and that of the body kissed. Tonight, the former, of course, focuses on the washing of feet, that part of our bodies which seems to generate such revulsion and anxiety (perhaps because, all other things being equal, feet carry the weight of bodies); the latter, of course, a kiss which acts as signal of doom, as recognition, as betrayal. A kiss in a garden which invites the whole world down upon the Holy One. And between the washing of feet and a kiss in a garden, the world is poised – between a call towards faithfulness, attendant to the cost of discipleship, and a collapse into tragedy in which God’s divine comedy seems to lie endlessly out of reach.

We draw close to that trajectory in which the living God empties himself into the hands of us. For, if he, in his wild trust and foolishness has already, the form of a baby, a peasant’s child, allowed himself to be placed in our hands, with no power except to elicit our love, now we are close to the defining revelation of God’s risk: he, as grown man, surrounded by enemies and labile friends, shall be handed over to us. That holy body – in which we all participate, which is our body too, so easily marred, used and abused – is to be received into hands stained with fear and violence and the threat of violence; so, skilled and sensitive and subtle that they can shape glory; that they can be trained to torture and damage.

This night, we are caught up in a time and space of intimacy, with all the troublous and remarkable implications that term has. We are exposed to the power of the haptic; that is, to the power of touch. And, therefore, we are in dangerous space. This intimate space of touch is precisely the one that has so often been exploited; where the vulnerable have been used and abused. In a moment of tenderness and kindness, we are always close to terror and horror. No wonder we have so often carefully regulated the intimate; It is the horizon of our bodies through which we effect taboo, rule and law: who, we ask, is allowed to touch whom, and when? And what does touch signify? Kindness? Friendship? Violence? Our skin marks the outer edge of the inner, and inner edge of the world that may break our bones and use us. Touch can be ecstatic, it can creepy, it can be monstrous and vile.

 And our Lord says, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’  It is a point of crisis. How shall we react, given the complex histories and stories we may be carrying. Histories of violence and abuse; histories of disgust at our bodies and so on; histories where we may have been so demeaned, excluded and hated by the religious that we want to say, ‘I have nothing that needs to be washed by the likes of you. My body is not unclean; it is not sinful; it is not disgusting.’

Perhaps we might spiritualize Christ’s words. Wash away my iniquity, the stains of my inner self, but leave me outwardly respectable. Do not truly call me to account. But, I fear it is a strategy of deferral and one which has masked much wickedness; it wishes to avoid the embodied, holiness of Christ’s call on out lives. Salvation is not an idea or a theory; it Is not worked out merely in the inner, for our actions have consequences; we cannot expect simply to treat forgiveness as an inner magic; reconciliation is lived bodily in time and space. It is worked out in the concrete realities of living. There is no short-cut. Soon, soon, in the Garden of Tears, Christ will know this in his body. If it be your will, Father, take this cup away from me…Christ is handed over to our violent ministrations, our terror in the face of the otherness of Love; love offered patiently and with no thought to cost. In his body he will taste our panicked violence. Soon, soon, the nails and the scourge.

Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’  Christ takes a towel and invites us to place ourselves into his hands. Soon, he will be in ours, but not yet … now – for this moment – dare we place ourselves in his hands? He takes a towel and wishes to wash our feet. Our stinking, sweaty, mangled feet. And, yes, perhaps we are cunning and smart. Perhaps we have already pre-washed our feet, had a manicure…got ourselves ready for his presence. We would not want him to be exposed to our reality. We would not want to expose the truth of our bodies to God. As if we could fool him.

Into whose hands are we invited to entrust our bodies? If it indeed be the Christ, how can he come to us in the form of a slave, a body servant? The lowest of the low? As one who has the lowest job: washing the dirty feet of honoured guests. This is no job for the Saviour, for the Christ who proclaims the year of God’s favour, for God…washing filthy feet is the business of the despised. Jesus comes before us as like unto a man who volunteers to fill in latrines and middens.

Perhaps we find our voices echoing Peter’s:
‘You will never wash my feet.’ You who have come to change the world; you whose hands can bring life to dead flesh, you who is the agent of God’s peace, lover of poor, and hopeless and mournful humanity.
‘O Blessed One, you will never wash my feet.’ You who I’ve followed from the shores of Galilee, who has uprooted family and neglected my responsibilities to be with the one with whom I have witnessed wonders, you who made me a vagabond for love and justice. No, you will not be nothing!
‘You will never wash my feet.’ Let me wash yours, let me take the place coded as lesser – as fit for those seen as subaltern, as gay, as black, as disabled, as female, as working-class, as worth less … that shame is not for you, Living God.

Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Ten words, just ten words signalling a universe in which hope and faith and love and their shadows will be worked out, in and through the body; Christ’s and ours. Is God a fool? To turn a history of salvation on something as frail as a body? I hope so. I believe so. Tragedy is not the final word, even if life is so often lived with that character. That a body might be enough to redeem it all, is enough, more than enough.

So, we move forward, into new intimacies – broken bread and wine outpoured. ‘This is my body broken for you; this is my blood.’ We have become participants in a strange feast indeed, a fool’s feast where one body can stand for all; and yet such foolishness confounds a fallen world that insists that power, glory, authority are displayed in making of the vulnerable a feast of bones to be cast on a rubbish dump, rather than the very locus of grace and hope.


This evening we are pilgrims with Peter, with Judas, with Mary and Mary, with James and John; with all those who have gone before us; with the great men and women of our faith, Augustine, Aquinas, Hildegard, Mother Julian, and the least and base too; we stumble with frail and arrogant humanity; those of much faith, those of little; those of none. And we act perhaps as if matters are still in our own hands, though we do not yet know how to transform fate into destiny. We forget that our bodies have been washed and prepared for death, for the end of our old ways of going on; we forget that we are in the hands of Jesus Christ even as we prepare – with Judas – to hand him over to his fate. We may yet think we’re in control of events, forgetting that we are in the hands of one who will transform fate into destiny. We have been prepared for death, and we do not yet realise it. Something is underway, time is short; time on our old selves, our old bodies, on a world of tragedy is almost up. Soon, it will be night, soon a kiss, soon Christ’s body will be touched by fresh and terrible intimacies. Soon, something else, what? Something half-glimpsed, pregnant in the dazzling dark.

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