At the end of the 17
century, when James I saw Christopher Wren’s completed masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, he pronounced it “awful.” In those days, though, awful meant awe-inspiring.
In that sense, Maundy Thursday has always been an awful day for me
celebrating as it does the sure and certain promise of our faith, that Jesus has risen from the dead, and is among us in bread and wine made his body and blood. All in all, an awe-inspiring day.
However, in another sense, it must have been
in today’s jargon
an awful day for his followers. It was not like any other day they had ever experienced leading up to the high holy days. They had been directed to find a man who Jesus said would provide them room and provisions for the Passover meal, and it was so. Then, when the meal began, as Jesus took the bread and broke it, he didn’t say the words they expected: “This is the bread of affliction.” Instead, he said, “This is my body, broken for you.” And at the conclusion of the meal, as Jesus took the cup of wine, he was supposed to say, “This is the cup of blessing.” Yet, he didn’t. Instead, he said, “This is my blood, which is shed for you.” Things were rapidly going downhill.
Then there was the matter of one of their number, Judas, running out before the meal was over and what, in John’s Gospel, Jesus did next: take off his robe, kneel down and wash their feet, a task so onerous that both Jewish custom and Roman law said not even a slave could be made to perform. All in all, an awful day.
This particular Maundy Thursday, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, is a particularly awful day. The chances are that we will not be able to gather to share that meal which is at the heart of our faith. We will not take in our hands the bread made his flesh, and our lips will not taste the wine made his blood.
Moreover, when it comes to that other commandment he gave us that day, to love one another has he has loved us, we will have to do it at a social distance of at least six feet from one another. We will not have our feet washed as a symbol of his love for us. An awful day. Yet, in the sense in which James used the word to describe St. Paul’s, it is also an awful day.
His promise remains true. As Paul later put it, there is nothing
no rulers, nor forces, nor viruses
nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is awful
awe-inspiring. And that is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Ken Fields