Keeping watch on Holy Thursday

It’s Holy Thursday, a day when we enter into the remembrance of Jesus’s passion and also his parting gifts to us: the institution of the Eucharist, of priesthood, and his call to all to love and to serve one another, as seen in the washing of his friends and followers’ feet.

This year, I am struck by the ways that the narrative of the events leading up to the Passion of Holy Thursday illustrate different ways that we can respond or react to anxiety, fear, and suffering. We see denial, as in Peter’s denial of Jesus, a desire to avoid it altogether, or to deny the necessity of our own participation in and presence to the suffering of others around us. Sometimes it can be easier to avoid the situation, or to deny its reality. We see anger, as when Peter strikes the solider and cuts his ear off, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus. We see betrayal, as in Judas’ betrayal of his friendship with Jesus, a betrayal perhaps born out of disappointment in Jesus, or even greed. We also see weariness, when Jesus asks his friends to stay awake near him, and they fall asleep. Weariness, reactive betrayal, avoidance, denial, and retaliatory anger are all understandable human reactions, but not always the most constructive ones.

Consider how hard it is to simply wait at home and pray during a pandemic (if one is not a medical professional or involved in essential services). It is often difficult to be inactive, simply to keep watch with Jesus, and to pray with him. Yet perhaps for many of this, this is exactly our call, to pray for the world, and to understand the great value of lovingly accompanying others, and so also being closer to Jesus, through intercessory prayer. For in loving God, we love God’s friends, and in loving God’s friends, we love God.

Jesus gives us two other ways to respond to suffering and fear: self-gift and service. In his sharing the Eucharist with us, Jesus both shares a meal with his friends, and donates his very self to us, a gift that never ends. This is just as true when we are at home watching a televised Mass or if we are there in person: God desires to be in communion with us and so will never deny us this gift when we sincerely seek spiritual communion in our hearts. God always generously offers God’s love to us, in every circumstance.

Jesus also washes the feet of his friends, and acts as as servant to them. Then he gives us his parting advice: “Love one another.” Opportunities to love never leave us, whether we are out in the world, serving or at home. We can try to be more patient and generous with our families despite the disappointments and frustrations. We can forgive one another for each other’s mistakes. We can share a meal with our family or community that has been lovingly prepared. We can check on our neighbors to see if they have the food, face masks, or other items that they might need. We creatively imagine ways to lighten the loads of others around us, when they struggle. We can hug those who are close to us, in our own homes, and we can send a loving hug through prayer to friends and family who are farther away.

Every year, I find it useful also to pray imaginatively with Scripture, in the manner of an Ignatian imaginative prayer: to read the passages in which we see Jesus’ final supper with his friends, and washes their feet. I like to imagine the scene in a very freewheeling and spontaneous way, and see what comes to mind. Other years, I have, for example, allowed Jesus to wash my feet and then seen him invite me to wash the feet of specific others. One year it was the men I visit in prison, and felt like a re-affirmation of my visits to them. Sometimes I have felt like Peter, and sometimes even like Judas, but I always strive to return to the part of me that is more like a friend who does manage to stay awake and come to comfort Jesus in the garden. Whatever happens, God seems to communicate something important to me in this time of prayer that illuminates God’s call to me, and love for me, and how I might pass on that love to others. This way of praying, and then afterwards conversing about the time spent in prayer with Jesus or Mary, and noticing the moments of consolation, can be powerful.

As difficult as events in our world are, we know that God’s love is always faithful, and that we share in it each time we come to the Lord’s table, whether in body or in our hearts. And we share in the presence of the divine—always closer to us than we even are to ourselves— each time we love, serve, and pray for one another.

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