Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday Meditation

Cross-posted from Covenant.

The most recent issue of National Geographic includes a cover story concerning animal intelligence, and how many animals are smarter than scientists have traditionally given them credit for. Some say that animals even have feelings and emotions of the same sort that human beings experience. The logical end of this line of thinking is that we should not only not be using animals for scientific research and experimentation, but that we should also not be using them for food, or for labor, or as residents of a zoo, or even as pets—unless, presumably, they sign a release saying it’s okay.

I don’t know. There may be a certain plausibility in all this, but I remain, I’m afraid, an enthusiastic carnivore. I love to eat meat, and I like it fixed all different ways, from barbecued steak to lamb shish kabob to stir-fried pork tenderloin to trout almondine. My mouth waters just writing about it. But, as far as I’m concerned, meat starts out in a refrigerated case in a supermarket, packed in a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic. There’s a part of me, of course, that knows that the my favortie boneless pork chops were not always boneless, and that those bones, along with the pork chops, recently belonged to a real live snorting mud-wallowing pig—a pig that, at a certain age, could very probably have been described as “cute”, a pig that, if actually able to contemplate its vocation to be wrapped in ranch dressing and cornflake crumbs, would have vociferously declined the honor. In order for me to enjoy my pork chop dinner, a surprised and squealing pig was grabbed by the throat against its will. One time, when I was eleven years old, I witnessed the slaughter of a chicken. It didn’t make me like fried chicken any less, but it did make me grateful for supermarkets and styrofoam trays and plastic wrap. I much prefer encountering my fresh meat in that form, rather than looking it in the eye as I reach for its neck.

Now, I realize that these gruesome facts of life drive some people to become vegetarians. I may not wish to join them, but neither do I wish to ridicule them or question their sincerity. Nor do I totally lack empathy with their position. I’m just not very overly fond of vegetables. But, I wonder… if we’re really going to sharpen the points of our moral pencils: is not the natural purpose of an apple to protect the seeds that are necessary for the propagation of more apple trees? And is not the natural purpose of a grain of wheat to fall into the ground and soak up rain water and sprout and grow into another wheat plant? Are we not violently interrupting the natural order and rhythm of life when we snatch a bunch of grapes off a vine before it ripens and falls on its own? Are we not violently interrupting the natural order and rhythm of life when we take a steel blade to a stalk of corn? The fact is, even vegetable matter is grabbed by the throat and killed—well in advance of its natural life span.

Those who retreat into vegetarianism for ethical reasons soon discover the meaning of the proverb, “you can run but you can’t hide.” The inescapable bottom line of human existence is that, in order for us to live, something else has to die. The life of one living being is sustained only by the death of another. And it’s not even death with dignity. The steer in the slaughterhouse has its head clubbed and its throat slit unceremoniously in a few seconds. It really is rather humiliating. A few grapes make it to silver bowls in the middle of tables with their natural beauty intact, but most are crushed —in some cultures still, beneath human feet—until the juice is separated from the pulp. We may romanticize the pastoral joys of stomping grapes, but there’s nothing romantic about it from the grape’s perspective. It’s humiliating.

When the people of Israel groaned under the yoke of slavery in Egypt, the Lord heard their cry of distress and called Moses to lead them out of bondage into the freedom of the Promised Land. On the night before their departure, they were instructed—each household—to take an unblemished lamb—not a fully-grown ornery old sheep with gray wool, but a young lamb, with fleece as white as snow—they were commanded to look this cute little lamb in the eye and grab it by the throat and kill it. Then they were to take its blood and smear it over the doorways of their homes, so that when the angel of death visited Egypt to slay every firstborn creature in the land, it would “pass over” the homes which displayed the blood of the paschal lamb. And so we receive the name of the Church’s solemn three-day observance that begins today: Passover. The life of Moses’ own firstborn brother, Aaron, depended on a cute little lamb being gripped around the neck and humiliated, both in the moments before its death and in what was done to it afterward.

The original Passover, of course, is a foreshadowing of the Christian Passover, and in the Christian Passover, the paschal lamb is Jesus the Messiah, the very Son of the Living God. First he is humiliated. But, unlike the grape crushed in a vat or a grain of wheat ground at the mill, or a steer whose throat is slit in a slaughterhouse, Jesus is the active agent in his humiliation. He who was in the likeness of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Servanthood was not forced on him; he voluntarily took it. He almost had to force his disciples to allow him to serve them. “Take off your shoes; I am going to wash your feet!” One of the linchpins of the church’s liturgy on this day is the re-enactment of this action wherein the Lord of all accepted the humiliation of becoming the servant of all.

In the same upper room where he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus foreshadowed his ultimate humiliation: his arrest, torture, and death on the cross. Only in his body being broken and his blood being poured out, and then only in their eating his flesh and drinking his blood, could their lives be sustained against the onslaught of evil and death. Judas Iscariot looked Jesus in the eye and Pontius Pilate grabbed him by the throat and Christians gather today at a table at which their victim is our main course. Perfectly-formed communion wafers and California wine administered from a silver chalice function like styrofoam and plastic wrap—they seek to insulate us from the violent origins of today’s menu—but in the depths of our hearts we know that the meal which sustains our lives this day, while served from an altar between two candlesticks, originated on a cross between two thieves.

From the upper room where Jesus presided at the Passover meal, re-interpreted as participation in his own body and blood, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, and from there he was arrested, tried, and condemned. Before he was nailed to the cross, he was stripped of his garments. In most artistic representations of the crucifixion, Jesus is depicted wearing a loincloth of sorts. In reality, it is more likely that he was stark naked. The shame and humiliation of that sort of exposure was considered an integral part of the punishment of crucifixion. It was never intended as death with dignity. When we strip the altar and the surrounding area as we adjourn this first part of the Triduum tonight, it will be in specific remembrance of this aspect of Jesus’ humiliating death.

In order for me to enjoy eating meat, I manage to repress my awareness of just how that meat finds its way to my plate. But the liturgy of Maundy Thursday will not allow me to repress my awareness of how I participate and share in the life of Jesus, the son of God. His body and blood are part of my body and blood, enabling and sustaining my relationship with the source of my being. The main course—the only course—at today’s banquet is also the host. He allowed himself to be grabbed around the neck and led like a lamb to the slaughter.

“What wondrous love is this, O my soul … that caused the Lord of bliss … to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.”


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Fr. Dan. I pray you and your people a blessed Triduum. - Jim Thompson