Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday: Words fail us

Maundy Thursday 18

Have you ever come to a point when you have just thrown up your hands and said “words fail me!”? My guess is that most of us have. Perhaps something terrible has happened, something we just can’t get our heads around. Watching the news yesterday I saw those grieving parents in Siberia whose children were killed in a fire in a shopping mall, a fire that they should easily have been able to escape, but couldn’t because the fire alarms had been turned off and the emergency exits were blocked. Whole families had been killed, when they’d just gone out for an afternoon’s shopping or a visit to the cinema. Some of them had phoned loved ones, knowing it would be their last conversation. How could this happen? Words fail us.

Or there was an interview with the parents of three teenage men in London killed by a drunk driver as they walked along the street to a birthday party, with all their lives ahead of them. The reporter asked the usual inane questions about how they felt. One mother said “excuse me, I’ve just got to fetch something,” and returned with a bag containing a plastic jar which I recognised all too easily, because I see those jars often. “This is all we have left of him,” she said “my son’s ashes in this jar.” Words fail us.

Words can fail us sometimes in happier circumstances too. If you’ve ever been in love, if you’ve ever felt enormous gratitude, if you’ve ever been overcome with wonder, words may have failed you.

I love words. I work with words all the time. I love to read and to write. Words matter to me. But sometimes they just can’t say what needs to be said. Words fail us.

It seems to me that that’s what happened on the night before Jesus died. He’d spoken many words to his friends in the three years they’d been together. Sometimes they’d seemed to understand. Sometimes it was clear that they didn’t have a clue what he was going on about. But now the time for words was coming to an end. If they didn’t get it now, if they didn’t realise what his message had been, no matter how clearly he spelled it out then there was no way of explaining it .“Love one another, even your enemies. “ “God is with you, whatever you’ve done.” “I have come that you might have love and have it in abundance…” “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit…” If they didn’t understand that it had all been about God’s generosity, God’s inclusive love, then there were no words which could make it any clearer.
The time for words was coming to an end anyway. During Christ’s trial and crucifixion he says very little, not defending himself, not explaining, knowing that what was going to happen was going to happen anyway, whatever he said. The early Christians saw echoes in the words of the prophet Isaiah.  “He did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent.” Words were no use. Words failed.
So, at this moment, Jesus abandoned words in favour of actions, abandoned ideas in favour of physical experience, washing feet, sharing bread and wine.

If you’ve been part of our Lent groups this Lent, or have been following the daily Lent reflections online or in print, you’ll know that it’s all been about physical experience, as we’ve explored faith through our five senses. We’ve thought about the woman who reached for Christ’s cloak, thinking that just to touch it would bring her healing. What did it feel like in her hand? We’ve thought about the fragrance of the ointment of nard which Mary of Bethany poured over Jesus’ head, a gentle, tender gesture which said to him, “I’m with you. I get it. You’re going to die, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, but I can let you know that I’m with you, not trying to fix things, but simply acknowledging them. We’ve looked at the Bible through sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste as they feature in the many stories in it. I don’t know what that has done for you, but it has been a reminder to me of the reality of those stories. It has brought them home to me in a new way. It has got me out of my head, out of the world of ideas, and into flesh and blood experience, which is so much more powerful.

That’s as it should be. After all, John’s Gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is “the Word made Flesh”, God in the reality of everyday life, in a person who you could touch and see and hear and smell and taste too, I suppose, if you were determined! People sometimes joke that God went to great efforts to turn the Word into Flesh, only for theologians and preachers to spend the following two thousand years trying to turn him back into words again. I hope our sensory explorations have helped to set some of that right.

The thing is, you see, that however clever our words are, when it comes to Jesus, when it comes to the love of God, when it comes to understanding his presence in our life words will always fail us, because words tend to get stuck in our heads, and God wants to be more than just an idea to us. He wants to be the smell of new life, the sound of hope, the sight that transforms us, the touch of love, the taste that sustains and delights us. He wants to be known in the whole of our lives, not just in the things we believe in our heads and say with our lips.

That’s good news, because it means you don’t have to have the words to explain God, even to yourself. You don’t have to understand all those complicated ideas in the creed we’ll say in a minute. You don’t have to have explored every opinion on every theological belief Christians have argued about over the centuries.

You just have to be prepared to let Christ wash your dusty feet, gently taking them in his strong, carpenter’s hands. You just have to be prepared to open your mouth and taste the bread and the wine he gives you, letting him nourish you with whatever it is that you need right now to grow strong. There’s nothing clever about any of that. We can all be washed, and eat and drink from the moment we are born to the moment we die. I share communion with small children – we can admit children to communion at any time after baptism here at Seal, if they are hungry for the bread and wine. I share communion with people with dementia, who have forgotten all the words they used to know, but are still aware that this is something that is special and comforting. It doesn’t matter whether we know what it is about. It doesn’t matter whether we agree what it means. All that matters is that we eat and drink. Christ tells his followers to “do this” in remembrance of me, not to “understand this” in remembrance of me.

So tonight, as we go with Christ into the darkness and silence that surround the last night of his earthly life, may the taste of the bread and the wine remind us that when words fail us, God doesn’t fail us. He goes with us into that darkness and silence, still nourishing us with his life and love if we will let him.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Malcolm Guite, called Love’s Choice.

Love’s Choice
by Malcolm Guite

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.

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