Slowly it dawns on me that my friends who are outside the church tend to think that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services are in the nature of theatrical performances, something to which I go so that I can enjoy them.
It is certainly true that I would not miss them unless I really had to. Also, that they are highly theatrical. They are not so much a matter of intellectual as visceral impact. On Thursday, the beauty and the seriousness of remembering that first giving of the body and the blood. The foot washing, graciousness given and received, an assurance of acceptance, of essential equality, an embracing care. Then as the mood changes, a kind of desperation, an anger, in the stripping of the church of every nice thing, every beautiful thing. Then the procession of the sacrament to Gethsemane, where Jesus prepares himself to be faithful to the bitter end, and faces just how bitter that end will be. The clergy and servers arrive and prostrate themselves. Somehow this is unbearably moving, the more so as some of the brightest and best people I know are lying face down in humility and adoration before a young man in an agony of fear.
And the wait, the long wait until midnight, often in tears again, in silence, separate yet together, as the church slowly chills, waiting until the last of the sacrament is consumed and Jesus, so invariably there until now, is suddenly not, and there is no comfort, no hope and we all leave, in silence and utter loneliness.
And the next day, that Friday we dare to call good, when we sit and remember just how low human kind can sink, and what brutality they can perpetrate, and how many suffer, and how God suffers in them. And we ask ourselves how far, and what, we are doing to stop the suffering, and the answer is not comforting. It is the bleakest day of the year.
My outside-church friends think I go to it as the kind of catharsis one gets form watching King Lear. There is a degree of truth in that, in so far as a great deal of planning goes on to ensure that people CAN get to experience all that. And also because something like washing the feet of upwards of a hundred people takes a bit of managing in the bowls, warm water and towels department if things are not to go on past midnight after all.
But the difference is this. King Lear never lived, and Cordelia never died. If Lear gets too much you can bring it down to size by choosing to remember this. But Jesus was real and he did die. And today, out there, people are still tortured, and Syria is a bloody mess, and little girls are shot to daring to make their voices heard and wanting an education, and sitting thinking about it all is really really hard.
And you cannot turn any of it off by reminding yourself it is make-believe.