Thursday, March 28, 2013

Broken Bread and Broken Bodies: A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Tonight, around the world, Christians are gathering for Maundy Thursday services: services where we remember the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. He washed their feet and shared bread and wine with them, a meal we commemorate each time we celebrate communion. 

I love communion for many reasons; I love the idea of sharing equally in the bread, against everything the world teaches us about who should have more and who should have less; I love that this tradition connects us to Christians around the world and through the centuries; I love that we are asked to remember Jesus not just with our minds, but with our bodies. But on this day, on Maundy Thursday, with the shadow of the Good Friday cross looming ahead of us, the communion ritual takes on a much darker tone, and it brings up all of the dangerous and harmful ways that the broken body and the cross have been interpreted to hurt people. 

The church has a long history of using the story of Jesus’ passion to tell vulnerable people to silently accept abuse. A woman in an abusive marriage, a woman who was afraid for her life, once went to her pastor, asking him what she should do about the situation. Her pastor told her that, like Jesus did, she should submit meekly to the abuse. He told her that if she was Christ-like by accepting her husband’s violence, perhaps God would transform her husband’s heart. And so she went back, and suffered in silence. This woman’s story is not unusual; if you listen to the voices of domestic violence survivors, you will find that many Christian women have been asked to accept violence in imitation of Jesus. 

And so on Maundy Thursday, as we anticipate tomorrow’s Good Friday remembrance of the crucifixion, communion makes me uneasy. When I hear Jesus’ words, “this is my body, broken for you,” I remember that this story has too often let the church glorify passive suffering in the face of evil. I remember all of the bodies that have been broken for Jesus, in imitation of Jesus, because people thought that that was what God wanted. And so, although I love communion, I have a hard time with it on Maundy Thursday. But on Maundy Thursday we also hear another story: a story from Exodus

The Israelite people are still in Egypt, and the first nine plagues have taken place. Now, God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying that what is about to occur will mark the beginning of each year for the Israelites. It will be a momentous event; a calendar-changing event. Each household will prepare a lamb, enough for everyone to eat. But this is not a leisurely meal. God instructs the Israelites to eat “loins girded, sandals on feet, and staff in hand.” The Israelites need to be ready to go. While they eat, the Passover will take place: God will strike down every first born human and animal; only the Israelites will be exempt, because they will have marked their doorposts, and so their houses will be “passed over.” And once this has taken place, Pharaoh will finally relent and the Israelites will be able to go out from Egypt. 

This text talks about a very different response to evil and oppression! In this text, the people are working with God for their own liberation – they are strapping on their sandals and grabbing their walking sticks. They are poised to leave. What a different story to tell a woman in an abusive relationship! This story doesn’t tell her to pick up her cross, to let her body be broken in imitation of Christ. This text says, "God is with you, and God will help you find a way. So eat something, and make sure your shoes are on."  

Although this is a text of liberation for the Israelites, it comes along with a devastating tragedy for the Egyptians: every firstborn, human and animal, dies. It’s hard to see how this can be the will of a loving God – but there it is in the text. We want to explain it away. We want to give some justification for why God would do that, but no explanation we can come up with would be adequate. We want to say that, historically, God did not do that.  But even if these plagues are legend rather than history, they are still right here, in our Bible, so we don’t get to say that they don’t matter. 

The Jewish tradition offers a powerful response to this story: every year, during Passover, Jews celebrate with a meal called a Seder. The celebration includes eating and singing, ritual foods like bitter herbs, and ritual words, like “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The celebration includes drinking four cups of wine. It is a feast of joy. But in the middle of the feast, there is a moment when the people remember the plagues, and the suffering that happened in Egypt in order for the Israelites to leave. They name each plague aloud, and for each plague, each person removes a drop of wine from her or his glass.  Ten drops of wine to remember ten plagues; ten drops of wine from every glass, as people remember that their joy is less because of the sorrow of the Egyptians. No explanation is offered, historical or theological. But for centuries, Passover celebrations have included, in the midst of joy, this remembrance of sorrow and suffering. 

It is very likely that it was one of these meals (not a Seder -- that formal ritual had not yet taken shape -- but a Passover celebration) where Jesus and his disciples ate together for the last time. A meal where the community celebrates liberation, and grieves over suffering – the suffering of their own community, and even the suffering of their oppressors. A meal where they remember the time when they ate with their shoes on and their walking sticks in hand, waiting and watching for the moment when they could act to liberate themselves. 

So as Christians gather at the table tonight, may we remember that the Gospel does not ask us to accept and celebrate broken bodies. Jesus’ journey will lead him to the cross, and there are ways in which Christian faith leads us to take up our crosses and follow. But this story reminds us of something essential: in the face of suffering and oppression, we are not asked to be meek and silent. No, we are called to be ready, attentive to how we can work with God for justice. We are called to put on our shoes.  We are called to take up our walking sticks.

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