I never find Holy Week easy, either to live through or to preach in. For me, these seven days, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday are too full of human failure to be really happy. We have begun with Jesus, the prince of peace, riding a donkey into Jerusalem – which is happy enough, it is true – but we know that this is the prelude to a week of horror. The living Jesus is anointed as for burial, a beautiful thing, but a foreshadowing of death. On Wednesday the appointed readings deal with Judas Iscariot, a chosen disciple and friend of Jesus, who betrays him for thirty pieces of silver. Today, the fellowship of the disciples is broken at the Passover feast – a feast which celebrates God’s saving love. Tomorrow, the love of God, which holds all the world in its embrace, will take Jesus to the cross, and he will die.
And if this is not enough, the tragedy is fulfilled in the world around us. In Jerusalem, a city holy to the name of God in three great religious traditions echoes to the sound of gunfire mixed with the sounds of joyful worship. In our own country as in so many around the world, strangers are not welcomed, the hungry are not fed, the naked are not clothed nor the prisoners visited, while overseas there are terrorist attacks on innocent people, private armies being raised in Iraq, and the ever-present famine and disease in too many countries in Africa..
Holy Week has been dark for many people this year, as it seems to be, every year.
But holy week is also a time of great joy.
For we who know the story of Christ know that the light of Easter is only three nights away – already we are anticipating the Resurrection. The Paschal candles are ready to be lit, the Easter hymns are chosen, the flowers are ordered and on Sunday, the resurrection of Christ from the dead is to be celebrated with joy and feasting.
But that is yet to come, and we are still here on Maundy Thursday, and the night is coming. Where is the joy, then? We will find it right there with the horror, joy and sadness mixed. God is with us in our darkness, the light is there and can never be overcome.
When Christ’s feet were anointed, there was beauty and love – the whole room was filled with the fragrance of the perfume, just as the whole world is filled with the love. The woman knew she was anointing Jesus for his burial, she was also pouring out the love of the whole world in response to the love of Jesus for the world. God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son; even so, says the woman, let the world respond with poured our love.
But what about Judas Iscariot, can there be joy or love in his betrayal? Certainly we can not say that betrayal is a loving thing to do; nor can we rejoice in Judas Iscariot’s narrow vision of the kingdom of God. But maybe we can see God at work here, taking the foolish and mistaken ideas of human will and using them to bring about salvation. Thank God that there is a possibility that our mistakes and betrayals can be turned to good – even the most wicked human deeds can be used to build the kingdom of God.
Here, perhaps is our triumph and the triumph of the cross. God is never absent, God never deserts us – even the cry of Christ from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” assumes that God can hear the cry. So we mortals with our own crucifixions can cry, “There is no God!” and God will hear our cry and love us.
No one can believe that God will always keep them from all harm, or always make them prosperous, or always destroy their enemies – God is not there to be manipulated or controlled, God is there to love – to love and to care passionately, always and for all creation
This night it is our turn to affirm this for ourselves and to allow ourselves to be loved and to love in turn. When it comes time for our feet to be washed it is time to recognise the intimate love of God. In Jesus’ time it was customary for visitors to have their feet washed as a sign of hospitality – today it is only those who are too weak to wash their own feet. So for us let it be a sign of our vulnerability – we will allow others to wash our feet in the same way we allow God to love us, and as we wash the feet of others so God loves with our hands and our wills. We might say that foot-washing is foolish and undignified – even if it is, let us be content for God to take the human foolishness and lack of dignity and use them to bring about salvation.
In the same way let God use the bread and the wine to sustain us for our journey to the kingdom. The tiny scrap of bread and sip of wine are ridiculously inadequate to sustain our bodies and yet God uses them to strengthen us for our task to change the world.
And when the meal is over and the altar is stripped and the church left bare and abandoned, we let God work in the darkness as well. In our world, there are many places of darkness, places we do not go to willingly, paths we would rather not take, cups that we would rather not drink. But through Christ, through the events of Holy Week we see that God is at work in the dark places, in the lonely paths, sharing the world’s agony even in the dregs of the most bitter cup, and that, surely, is a cause for rejoicing.