Here is the text of the Rev. Michael Coren's sermon delivered on Maundy Thursday.
My mother died on Maundy Thursday some years ago and she didn’t have what they call a “good death.” It’s a strange phrase, a jarring misnomer, an oxymoron designed to ease the pain of loss. But there was nothing good about this wonderful woman’s passing.
She had dementia, and I watched as her body shrank and her mind retreated into God knows what and God knows where. Childhood perhaps, or fantasy, or even nowhere. She eventually fell asleep and remained in that oblivion for two weeks. Then she died. But whenever I looked into her eyes, the eyes of someone who had shown me nothing but unconditional love, I could still see the spirit, the essence, the core of the great, grand person who was my mum.
I say this now partly due to the anniversary of her death but also because that spirit, that core, that essence and that — yes — that soul is at the epicentre of this holy week, of this holy night.
Not that Sheila Coren had any time for organized religion, but I do of course. I’m a priest, I’ve got no choice! But I’m also a journalist, I’m in the public square, and I’m constantly attacked by cynics and atheists who talk about God being akin to the tooth fairy or Santa Claus and all the rest of the stale, standard insults and abuse. Ho hum. Water off a Christian’s back.
I am many things but I am not naïve, not unworldly, not stupid. I believe in the Christian God for a whole variety of reasons, some intellectual and some not, and while several of the greatest people I know are atheists, the greatest of all of the people I know is the one who founded Christianity 2,000 years ago, the man we think about and pray about, and pray to. The man I know, because I do indeed know him. Faith is a relationship. And I remember that especially this week. The week that this man told us to love one another.
He was a young, Jewish man living in occupied Palestine and He preached not change but revolution. The world not reformed but born again. He was, I am convinced, the Son of God, and for making that claim He was beaten, abused, humiliated, executed.
The Easter story is the great conclusion, the culmination, the explanation. There have been echoes and predictions of what would happen but now we’re there. It began with Palm Sunday, and now we’re about half way there. And at this stage in the Easter story he is listened to, and adored. His followers think it’s safe, he knows otherwise.
He knows what is about to happen, because he preached love, justice, tolerance, forgiveness and inclusion. He demanded that we love all and everybody as ourselves, insisted that we look to justice rather than gain, and to kindness rather than condemnation. That was the world turned upside down, that IS the world turned upside down. For that he will be rejected, humiliated, killed.
Christmas, of course, is the time for giving and receiving gifts but at Easter I think of Jesus Christ as the perfect gift given to humanity; but we often wrap that sublime and divine gift either in gaudy, childlike paper or dark, thick cloth. In other words, we obscure and disguise it. We put law before love, ritual before relationship.
Yet there is a middle way, a via media if you like, where that gift is revealed for what it really is. It is the Prince of Peace, serving as a conduit between God and us, lighting a road that is happiness and fulfillment, a road that is curved and sometimes difficult but always worth the walk.
Here, in this reading, at this stage in the Easter story, we have a love feast – agape is the best Greek word for what is going on, because there are lots of different Greek words for the word “love”. I highly recommend, by the way the book The Four Loves by CS Lewis. Frankly, I recommend anything by Lewis, one of the finest Christian writers we’d had, and who once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.” king of yourself less.” Consider that for a moment: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”
And humility is perfected here. What Jesus is doing is revealing that divine paradox again – in death there is life, in gentleness there is strength, and this case in humility there is triumph. In a short while he will give all at the cross, but here he humbles himself to wash the feet of his followers. He’s showing us the way – community, equality, empathy, care, love.
That is the Jesus of Maundy Thursday: cutting through the pain and the suffering and the confusion of this broken planet and pulling back the curtain to show the splendid truth of the world’s possibilities.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
He wanted love to be bigger, joy to be bigger, humanity to be bigger, the church to be bigger.
1944, a group of soldiers advancing in Normandy. One of their friends is killed. They see a church in the distance, and carry his body there. They knock on the door, and the captain asks the priest in broken French is he can bury their friend.
Priest: “Was he Catholic?”
Captain: “No, don’t think so.”
Priest: “I’m so sorry, if it were up to me I would. But I can only bury baptized Catholics. I’m so sorry. But I can put him just outside the fence of the cemetery. I promise to honour him.
Reluctantly, the soldiers agree.
Several months later the same unit is returning to the coast, the war over. They are in a jeep, only a few miles from the church, and decide to visit their friend. But when they arrive, he’s not there, no longer outside the fence. They run to the church door, angry and prepared to do violence.
Captain, shouting: “Where is he! What have you done with him?”
Priest: “He’s still there, of course he is. But now he’s inside the fence … I decided that I had to make the church bigger.”
Making the church, the community of faith, the family of belief, bigger.
Big enough for you, for us, for Sheila Coren, even for me.
That’s Maundy Thursday.
Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew on Flickr.com