When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet, then Judas the ungodly was stricken and darkened with the love of money; and to lawless judges he delivered you, the just judge. O lover of money, look upon him who for its sake hanged himself; flee from the insatiable soul, which dared such things against the Teacher. O you who are good to all, Lord, glory to you.
(Troparion for Great & Holy Thursday)
As I was listening to the hymns at matins for Great & Holy Thursday, I began to realize that I had my life exactly backwards. I do not serve others because I love them, I love them because I serve them It is service that leads to love, and for that matter to all manner of good and virutous things in my life. Our service is what make us holy and the less we serve, the more narrow our circle of those who we actively care for, the more constricted our hearts will be.
This was all made more concrete for me when I read Gary A. Anderson's article “Faith and Finance” in the current (May 2009) issue of First Things (which is not yet online for those who subscribe). Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame, draws a linguistic parallel between “ faith and finance.” “It is,” he argues, “no accident that the word creditor in English comes from the Latin credere , 'to believe.' . . . A set of deep theological ideas lies behind this tight semantic joining of the disposition of trust and the act of issuing loans.” (p. 29) Indeed, as he fleshes out in the rest of his article, the disposition of trust—faith—is at the heart of the financial system and it is because of the absence of trust—faith—that in the system (and I think more pointedly, those who manage the system in our name as stewards of our shared wealth).
Where his article takes an interesting turrn, and this brings us back to Matins of Great & Holy Thursday, is the translation of “righteousness” ( tsedaqah ) in the Septuagint as almsgiving . “If the Greek translation is correct, it would appear that forgiveness is not completely an action of done by God alone but requires some sort of human participation.” For this reason, he concludes, to “be redeemed form one's sins requires the good work of showing mercy to the poor.” (p. 29)
Please, if you can, do read the whole of Anderson's argument. But for now, it seems to me that the services for Holy Thursday represents something of a crescendo in the service of this week. Or maybe it might be more accurate to refer to Holy Thursday as the liturgical “ hinge” of Holy Week. Having first been challenged to lay aside my own ego (Holy Monday) and remain open to the human face of divine love (Holy Tuesday), I then am shown, in graphic terms, between the life I am called to live and the life I actually live (Holy Wednesday).
And the life that has been described for me liturgically on Holy Thursday at Matins I discover, at the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil on Thursday morning, is nothing more or less than the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the line, if I am to grow in Christ (to say nothing of inherit the Kingdom of Heaven), I need not simply to repent or not simply commit myself to struggle against my sin. I must also cultivate the life of virtue at the center of which is both a life of prayer (both personal and liturgical) and service of my neighbor in his or her poverty.
The form that service takes is as broad and diverse as human neediness itself. What matters is not the form of my service relative to yours (and vice versa), but the fact of service. It is also important that my service is merely some form of “do goodism” to satisfy my own ego and win the praise of others. My service must embody (and bring about) a real purification of my egoism and entrenched self-centeredness. Service in the sense I'm using it here is not social work (though social work can, and for many is, certainly a form of true Christian service), but the ascetical reformation and graced transformation of my life.
And again, all of this is rooted in Christ and my willingness to conform my life to His. While in the early stages of my spiritual life my imitation of Christ might be somewhat forced, or even unintentional, I must grow to more and more pattern my life on Christ's. This will necessarily require that, as with Christ, I suffer for the sins of the world; suffering in my life reflects both my own sin and the sin of my neighbor. This suffering can, however, be purifying and life-giving if I allow it to be so.
I thought about this during the Reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels at Matins Thursday evening. The service itself is long (over 2 ½ hours in my parish and this after an early morning Liturgy, a full work day for my parishioners and several hours of hearing confession for me) as we hear every word from the Gospel about the death of Jesus on the Cross. (For those interested, here are the readings in order: John 13:31-18:1 ; John 18:1-29 ; Matthew 26:57-75 ; John 18:28–19:16 ; Matthew 27:3-32 ; Mark 15:16-32 ; Matthew 27:33-54 ; Luke 23:32-49 ; John 19:19-37 ; Mark 15:43-47 ; John 19:38-42 ; Matthew 27: 62-66 .)
Of all the readings, it is the last one from St Matthew that stands out for me every year:
On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, "Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, 'He has risen from the dead.' So the last deception will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard. ( Mt 27: 62-66 )
I can refuse purification, I can refuse to serve. Why do I do this? Because I do not want my plans and projects undone by God.
In my desire to retain control of my own life I can find no end of collaborators both “in the world” and even, I am sad to say, “in the Church.” But as the events of the next few days will make clear, and as Pilate himself even alludes to, no matter how much help I get, I simply cannot secure my life against the grace of God. God's love will come to me. I may refuse that love certainly, but I cannot prevent God from loving me, from working to save me.
And so Holy Thursday comes to the stark ending of the Gospel passage above. Do I wish to secure my life against divine grace or will I move forward to the Resurrection? On this question, I think, hinges not only the services of Great and Holy Thursday but each human life.