A Reflection for Maundy Thursday by Fr Phil Andrews:
“A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?” So wrote the great novelist of the World War II and post-War era, W. Somerset Maugham. This quotation comes from his 1944 novel, “The Razor’s Edge”. It’s a story about a World War I pilot who, traumatised by his experiences in that war, sets off on a lifetime journey of discovery for the transcendent. However lofty such an odyssey might sound, his search was actually one of wanting to be saved and to be loved, in a seemingly unlovely world.
I know many are feeling traumatised by what’s happening in the world at this time. They are pained that our churches have had to be closed. Some are feeling angry, alienated, unloved, and afraid. I’m sure many Christians will have made those thoughts found in Psalm 42 their own: ‘I say to God, my rock: “Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”’. However, we must never reduce our pain to a sentiment based on a psychological need for the divine, as Pope St Pius X taught. God is God, at all times and in all places; and if we do recognise ourselves in that psalm’s sentiments, then know that we are actually taking a share in Christ’s sufferings, which he endured for love of us (Cf. Acts 5:41; Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 12:10; Colossians 1:11; Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 10:34; James 1:2; 1 Peter 4:13.).
In Maundy Thursday, we stand at the threshold of the great Triduum of the mystery of our redemption and salvation. We should endeavour – to cite that psalm again – to remain as deer longing for flowing streams – our souls athirst for the living God. For yes, God is transcendent, the Almighty God who cannot be approached or seen in essence or being. But he is immanent in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, who – in the Sacred Mysteries of Holy Week – reveals himself not as a mighty Jupiter-like deity, out to impress; but rather as a suffering servant, who out of love for us and our salvation, will offer himself totally, as St Augustine described it, on the nuptial bed of the cross.
But here’s the thing (as Bishop Robert Baron is wont to say), he commands us to imitate him in that same service: to be suffering servants with him; even to the picking up of our crosses and following him to Calvary. In so doing, we need have no fear, though; for those flowing streams of salvation for which we long don’t just flow – they gush – and nothing can hold them back, because the God who is a suffering servant, is passionately in love with each and every one of us, and he gives us a peace which the world cannot give (Cf. John 14:27); but at the same time, he is also that same Almighty God, whose peace passes all understanding (Cf. Philippians 4:7)!
In English, we think of the word, “salvation” (soteria) in terms of being saved and delivered, saved by the One and Only Saviour, (soter) Jesus Christ. For Christians, this is clearly the most beautiful and appropriate understanding of the word. However, in Greek, the word also implies physical and mental health, as well as spiritual. Thus, in Sacred Scripture, we may encounter St Peter giving witness before the High Priest and the Council of the Elders, stating: “… there is salvation (soteria) in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (sozo).” (Acts 4:12); whilst also reading of St Paul admonishing those about to embark on a long sea voyage to take care of their physical health when he states: “Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength (soteria), since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” (Acts 27:34).
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is the Universal Sacrament of Salvation (Cf. Lumen Gentium §48, Ad Gentes §1, and Gaudium et Spes § 45), and she has always, and will continue – at all times, and in all places – to work for the spiritual salvation of all, using whatever remedies she has from her treasury of merit. Because of This Week of all weeks, from “…the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1476), the Church has granted us indulgence to continue to live our Christian lives during this time of pandemic – even without the usual ministrations of the Church. In so doing, the Church is being faithful in her role as a loving mother (Cf. CCC §1163 and 1667), by being attentive to our physical wellbeing, also. And so, by following the command of Christ to love as he has loved us, to share in his servanthood, we can add to this same treasury, as the saints have always done before us, for such is the intimacy of God’s love. (Cf. ST Suppl. IIIae, q. 25, a. 1.).
We may not have the ordinary means of participating in the Paschal Mysteries this year, but the Church has ensured that we shall have extraordinary means as we unite ourselves to the Sacred Liturgy spiritually from home, such is the love a mother has for her children, mirroring the love which Christ has for his spouse, the Church. The Lord’s love knows no bounds; but we must be careful, as we can put a limit on it.
And so, as we approach the first of the great days of the Triduum, we find ourselves once again participating in history… but not the history of having been in church last year, or the year before that; rather, we are entering into the timelessness of Salvation History, from which our true and fullest health flows.
As the New York City parish priest, Fr George Rutler observed recently, precisely because ‘everything is shut… the Passion will be more powerful because the veil of the temple is drawn, and only a cry from the Cross can tear it open. The holy apostles thought themselves bereft of the One they had hoped might be the Messiah. On the Mount of Olives, three of them slept a depressed slumber haunted by anxious confusion. In every generation, varying circumstances have given us the impression of being abandoned by the One who had promised to be with us always. Blaise Pascal wrote, Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’à la fin du monde; il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world. We should not sleep during this entire time.” The solemnity of those words was the freight of the confidence which tethers agony to victory.’
Having pledged in years past during the Sacred Liturgy to keep the Lord Jesus’ “mandatum novum”, his new commandment: that gesture of the Lord with which, having loved his own, he loved them to the end is repeated (Cf. John 13:1); in this Holy Week of 2020, let us truly apprehend what the Lord has bequeathed to us, his disciples, as our “marque”: to love unto death.
This year on Maundy Thursday, we shall receive the Lord Jesus in spiritual Holy Communion, and in that same spiritual Communion, let us maintain our adoration as – free of all distractions in a manner unlike all previous years – we shall commit to staying awake for the Lord; who himself in the grip of profound anguish, asks us, his disciples to watch and pray with him: “Remain here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written, that in the Triduum we commemorate the supreme battle between Light and Darkness, between Life and Death. Thus likewise, we must also put ourselves in this context, aware of our own “night”, of our sins, and of our responsibilities, if we want to benefit spiritually from the Paschal Mystery; if we want our hearts to be enlightened through this Mystery which constitutes the central pivot of our faith; let us be vigilant — not wanting to leave the Lord on his own at that hour; because in so doing, we can better understand the mystery of Maundy Thursday, which embraces the supreme, threefold gift of the ministry of the Priesthood, the Eucharist, and the new Commandment of Love.
On Maundy Thursday, as we keep the Lord company, let us meditate on this: God loves us, his creatures; he even loves us in our fallen state and does not leave us to ourselves. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). He loves us to the end (Cf. John 13:1). He is impelled with his love to the very end, to the extreme that he, the Almighty God came down from the heights of heaven and cast aside the raiment of his divine glory; that he put upon himself our garb, the vesture of a slave. He came down to the extreme lowliness of our fallen state; and he raises us — literally — from the detritus into which we have thrown ourselves! (Cf. Psalm. 113:7; 1 Samuel. 2:8). He kneels before us and carries out for us the service of a slave: he cleanses us so thoroughly that he acquires our dirt under his very fingernails, so that we might be admitted to God’s banquet and be made worthy to take our place at his table.
God, whilst being great, is not too distant to be bothered with the trivia of our lives. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with small things. Since he is great, the soul of man, the same man created through eternal love, is not a small thing but great, and worthy of God’s love. God’s holiness is not merely a blazing power before which we are obliged to withdraw, terrified (Cf. Exodus. 15:11; 1 Chronicles. 29:11; Psalm. 93:1); no, it is a power of love and therefore a purifying, saving (healing) power.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continues, God descends and becomes a slave, he washes our feet so that we may come to his table. In this, the entire mystery of Jesus Christ is expressed. In this, what redemption and salvation means becomes visible. Jesus washes us is his love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power which washes the grime from us and elevates us to God’s heights. God gives himself to us without reserve — to the very depths of his suffering and his death.
And so Fr Rutler believes this will be a great Holy Week because “we are positioned to share the confusion and ambiguity of the crowds in Jerusalem when that enigmatic figure with a sublime countenance entered the city riding on a shabby beast. In days of shock and sorrow, He is calling attention to what in languid hours we may have taken for granted or possibly did not really understand at all—namely, why Holy Week is holy.”
In these “days of shock and sorrow”, let us truly understand that Holy Week is Holy because the Lord Jesus’ love is inexhaustible, it truly goes to the very end.
“A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?” wrote Somerset Maugham, almost certainly believing this to be a statement, rather than a question.
But the Word-made-Flesh, Immanuel God-with-us, can explain it, and the words are his: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”’ (John 13:34-35); and for to all who obey the Lord Jesus, he is “the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9).