Football, so they say, is a game of two halves. Well it’s not a game, obviously, but Maundy Thursday is the same – its in two halves (excuse the tautology!). Holy Week has many strange gears to it. The week begins on Palm Sunday with real energy. There’s a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation as you set out on the procession and into church. Choristers are excited at getting a palm cross and, whilst the director of the choir isn’t watching, having a swashbuckling time with them as they become swords or daggers in their imaginative hands. And then it all goes quiet.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week have a very different feel. At the Cathedral we attempt to reduce the number of regular meetings that occur, but the emails keep filling up the inbox and the devil plays his games and there are things to be done and decisions to be made and whilst you may try to fit in some pastoral, sacramental ministry and attendance at some extra services, there’s a ‘business as usual’ feel about the place.
We’ve been really blessed this year with Canon Mark Oakley who’s used those first three days to introduce or reintroduce us to George Herbert, John Donne and W H Auden and that’s been fantastic. Those addresses concluding with Compline have had a quiet reflective feel about them. And that’s quiet right because in this way we somehow manage to touch something of the week with Jesus.
After that noisy beginning, the unstoppable rejoicing of the crowd, the beginning of the week then sees Jesus slipping in and out of Jerusalem, doing some teaching, causing a frisson or two in various places and with various people and disappearing off to his friends in Bethany – his bolt hole. But there’s something of the calm before the storm about it all.
Maundy Thursday though is the turning point for us as it was for Jesus and getting up in the morning and heading off to the Cathedral I know that. Years as a Precentor have made me very aware of the amount of work that goes into staging the liturgy in the next three days. The Vergers, the musicians, our Stewards, other volunteers are all geared up for this change of pace, this change of gear, as Holy Week becomes the Triduum, the Great Three Days.
The two halves of the day are very important as well. Whilst Her Majesty The Queen is somewhere – St George’s Chapel Windsor this year – distributing the Royal Maundy money – in many Cathedrals preparations are being made to receive all the clergy, and sometimes lay ministers as well, for the Chrism Mass and the Renewal of Ordination Vows – or whatever it is that the service is called. Southwark is no exception.
As I said yesterday, Paul, the Dean’s Verger, has been busy over the last few days preaparing the oils and yesterday afternoon there was a great deal of furniture shifting going on to get the stage set for the eucharist this morning. When I arrived all was ready, the silver was out, the wafers counted, seats had been labelled for the ‘dramatis personæ’ and all we needed was all the people who had a role in the service and the congregation, of course.
Then, in the evening it will be the Celebration of the Last Supper, the foot washing, the Watch, our immersion into the events on Mount Sinai, the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane, which form the second, dramatic half of the day.
As I was thinking about it all, and at the moment I’m in the gap between the two halves, it struck me that this day is so important for me because it puts me not only in touch with Jesus and all that was happening to him, a liturgical folding of history so that past and present come together, seem to touch, just as they do every time we offer bread and wine in the Eucharist, but also with the priesthood in which I am privileged to share.
After 32 years of being a priest its hard to imagine any other way of life and, to be honest, I’m not sure what else I could do. However, the reality of a lot of ministry is that you get dragged away from the very things that you were ordained to do. Knowing what you were ordained to do is of course a moot point. Church tradition, generational differences, temperament, giftings all make us view ministry and priestly ministry, in particular, in different ways.
So I’m pleased that in the Chrism Mass I can be drawn back to the beginning, to the vows that I made in Ripon Cathedral all those years ago and recommit myself to them and in the evening I can wash feet and break bread which, for me, symbolise what it is that I feel called to do – to serve and to feed.
Both of those things – to serve and to feed – can be developed and expanded, they are both sacramental to a greater or lesser extent. Foot washing symbolises visiting the sick, going round someone’s house, being known at the school gate, helping at the Food Bank, sleeping out for the night shelter, visiting the bereaved before and after the funeral, all those things. Breaking bread encompasses all the feeding that we do, the preaching, the teaching, the Alpha, Emmaus, Pilgrim courses, baptism preparation, house groups, assemblies, as much as placing broken bread in those outstretched hands.
So I’m brought back to the heart of it and reminded who I am and as I looked down this morning from my stall and saw all those dog collars, hundreds of them, it was great to feel that we were in the same business. And as I look down the nave this evening and see the people whose feet I’ll wash, and see the people who’ll receive bread and wine, the body and blood of the Lord, at my hands and from my hands, I’m deeply thankful. It helps me get through the other 364 days when perhaps I forget, for a moment, that I am living the life of a priest and become seduced by the idea that I’m doing the job of a Dean!
Lord, you call us to service;
make us worthy of that calling.