Well, Maundy Thursday may not be a red letter day on everyone's calendar. Target doesn't have much seasonal decor for this holiday, and not many people take the day off.
But this day is one of my favorites in the long, gradual build-up to Easter. The original Maundy Thursday was the last night of Jesus' life. He used the opportunity to drive home the main message of his entire life:
"Love one another as I have loved you."
To kick things off on that fateful evening, Jesus famously washed the feet of his disciples, in order to set a good example of servant-hood.
But tonight, my imagination has been captured by the two other main events of the night.
While gathered with his twelve best friends and followers for his last supper, Jesus asked them to eat bread and drink wine in his name, and promised to be present in the future in that simple meal. Two thousand years later, we Christians still partake of this custom on a weekly basis, and I have some fond memories of sharing the holy meal with a certain group of God's people. I'll explain more about that in a minute.
At the end of the evening, Jesus knew that trouble was brewing and he went to a nearby garden, his buddies in tow, to pray in the calm before the storm. As a passionate gardener, I totally understand Jesus' choice for a holding zone and love to imagine what that place might have looked like.
^ Outside my church is a small garden. Designed for walking or sitting, it's a pretty, peaceful kind of place. Just like the garden that Jesus sought on the last night of his life.
^ These camellias, lush and full in their pink prime, remind me that on the original Maundy Thursday, Jesus was also at the prime of his life, though probably not quite so ruffly.
The night of his betrayal
Our Lord took bread
He blessed it and he broke it
And then he said
"My body given for you
Is what this means
Remember now, my children
What you have seen"
These words are the first verse of a song that means a lot to me.
About ten years ago, when my older children were just entering the squirrely years of adolescence, I helped to jump-start and lead a new approach to youth ministry at my church. Our team of about a dozen adults had a simple plan. We wanted to help teens understand what it means to live in faith by gathering together once a week, sharing with them a series of multi-sensory experiences and conversations meant to deepen their awareness of their own faith, and most importantly, loving them no matter what.
^ Knowing that his life was about to be cut short, Jesus was a little freaked out. He asked his friends to stay awake with him and pray through the night. But they sat down - perhaps on benches like this one - and promptly fell asleep. Fail.
^ Praying on by himself, Jesus asked God to spare him from death. But he quickly relented, and agreed to abide by God's plan.
And then he took the challis
And raised it high
"My blood is given for you
A full supply
A covenant, a promise
A cleansing stream
Remember now, my children
What you have seen."
Most of the time we spent together on any given evening was fairly nuts, as might be expected when twenty or so middle schoolers are placed in one room. There were skits with costumes; an eighth grade boy once wore one of my old bridesmaid dresses, another boy wrapped himself up in a string of Christmas lights and promptly fell over like a mummified corpse. We ran the kids through obstacle courses, held shaving cream fights, and organized at least one unforgettable game of hot potato. Group back massages were a standard part of the evening, though we adults always positioned ourselves strategically around the circle to keep the raging hormones under control. Honestly, every night we spent together was a wild, exhilarating ride.
But at the end of each evening, our hyper, happy group would circle round a huge wooden cross, laid across several small tables, and covered with white pillar candles. After the lights were turned down, we would pray together, naming our concerns out loud and lighting a candle for each prayer.
When those prayers had been said, and the candles were all aglow, illuminating the still-giggling, still-whispering faces of our young people, we would sing all three verses of this song. And then we would share together in Jesus' meal of bread and wine.
^ Jesus knew that one of his so-called friends was going to betray him to the authorities, and he would be arrested and taken to his death. Though he might have run away, he realized that this was God's plan for him. He was, you might say, between a rock and a hard place.
^ More camellias. Just because they are beautiful.
We share this food together
We share a common treasure
And know the price
We share it without measure
A gift of love
We share our lives together
With God above.
Never in my life have I ever felt the power of love poured out through the bread and wine as I did with those crazy kids. For three amazing and life-changing years, we gathered in the dark around that candle-lit cross and shared the holy meal, and I felt the love of God like never before.
And then, sadly, for complicated and unhappy reasons, our group disbanded. Years have passed, and those precious evenings at the cross have faded into history.
For the rest of my life, I don't expect that I will ever top that experience of Christian community. But I sure do treasure the memories. And on this Maundy Thursday, I remember that those crazy kids and the amazing adults who helped me keep the lid on the joint, are always connected to me through God's amazing meal of love.
^ With his disciples full of bread and wine, and his evening in the garden at an end, Jesus was ready to journey on toward the cross. The story continues tomorrow, Good Friday.
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More Easter stories? Yes.