Trudging through the Triduum

Well, OK, the title is only funny if you pronounce the last word as I was taught: TRI-djoo-oom. But seriously, it’s going to be a different kind of journey for us all this year. The Great Three Days (or “Triduum”) that lie at the heart of the Christian Year usually offer the opportunity for God’s people to gather and to walk with Jesus and with one another from the Upper Room to Skull Hill to the Empty Tomb, that is, to reprise the core events of the faith. But not this year. In anno Domini 2020 we shall do so via technology, if at all.

At the moment, my thoughts are focused most fully on the first of the three days, Maundy Thursday, since I have been asked to offer the homily for the congregation that my wife serves as pastor. I checked my sermon file (that’s the “barrel” for those in the trade), and found, as I expected, sermons mostly on the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 12, where God instructs Moses and Aaron on the particulars of the Passover meal that his people are to observe for all generations. One sermon, in fact, from very early in my ministry was offered on a Maundy Thursday when I had first led the congregation through a Passover seder meal (taken almost word-for-word from Jewish sources, as I am not a fan of Christianized seders). The sermon was set at the beginning of the service and made a deliberate pivot from the meal of the Old Covenant (the Passover) to that of the New (the Eucharist that Jesus first established at a Passover seder). My focus was on similarities, not differences, in an attempt to lead the good folk of Cheshire Lutheran Church in Connecticut, where I served as assistant pastor during my doctoral studies in Old Testament, to recognize the deep roots of the Christian faith in both testaments (and, not incidentally, to see our immense debt to our older siblings, the Jews, of whom Jesus was one for his entire life).

But what is to say on a Maundy Thursday when we shall not be sharing The Meal? I shall digress but for a moment and say that, in my fallible opinion, attempts at a technology-mediated “virtual communion” being offered these days by some Christian congregations are a non-starter for me. I have no interest in picking a fight. In fact, my main objection lies not on theological grounds but on historical ones: most of the points that I have heard offered in favor of the practice (by which everyone on the ZOOM call or whatever shares bread and wine—or some other food and drink—after the pastor’s online consecration) smack of what historians call “presentism,” the belief that we live in a time unique in human history that requires, in turn, interventions from scratch. Hard as it is for a Boomer to admit that he does not live in a time like no other, not so: there have indeed been times when Christ’s people have had to do without the Eucharist for awhile. Enough said.

So what’s to say this Thursday? It is worth noting that the prescribed Gospel lesson is from John, the only one of the four gospels that does not feature a “Last Supper,” because, by John’s reckoning, Passover that year began on Friday night, not Thursday night (as in the other three gospels). Permit me, please, to pass over (as it were) that discrepancy in silence. What John does make a great deal of is two points. First, he recounts Jesus’s presentation of a “new commandment” (or mandatum novum in Latin—the source of our “Maundy”), that his disciples should love one another. Second, he explicitly reaches beyond those gathered that night to later generations, as Jesus prays “not only on behalf of these [present there with him], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [i.e., all later generations of Christians]” (John 17:20).

The bottom line is that it is no act of theological acrobatics to affirm that we today (and Christians of all ages and places) were present in a way more true than historical in the Upper Room that night—in the mind of Christ. The Gospel according to John says so. At this moment, in a way more real than literal, we receive together the New Commandment directly from Jesus’s lips. At this moment, when love requires that we remain apart, we are called to serve others. If we cannot touch and wash others’ feet (as Jesus did to model what he meant that night), we can do what we can do. And for that purpose, all our technological toys are fair game, say I.