A rabbi of my acquaintance, a hospital chaplain, tells of being asked, time and again, by many of the sick or suffering people she sees: Why me? To this plaintive question she has one inarguable answer: Because you have a body.

Just over three months ago, we joyously celebrated God’s taking on a body — human flesh — to dwell among us. Where is that joy now? We’ve been here before. We know what awaits. The story unfolds at its own pace, carrying us along in swirling currents of love, betrayal, greed, love, violence, suffering, love. Why? Because in Jesus, God has a body.

Many who ask, Why me? eventually find some comfort in clinging to the words, It’s in God’s hands now.

As someone who enjoys playing with words and language, not to mention dabbling in theology, I find this phrase curious, provocative. Does it signal resignation — I’ve done all I can, the rest is up to a power greater than I? Or does it signal humility? Or perhaps trust — that God will intervene to alter circumstances, or outcomes? Or is it a way to dodge responsibility — it’s not my problem to solve, it’s God’s! All of the above?

I wonder how close one could ever come to living each moment of each day, day in day out, with this thought central: It’s in God’s hands now. Not as a way of relinquishing our responsibility to love one another, to advocate for mercy and justice, but to consciously and deliberately embody the collaboration, to co-laboring, that God asks of us: Love one another as I have loved you.

It’s in God’s hands. Now you will notice I haven’t spoken of what the “it” is — I suspect each one of us carries our own “it” that we’d like to place in God’s hands. So here is an invitation: to look deep inside yourself, for the most meaningful, frightening, hopeful, desperate, profound, vulnerable, essential “it” that dwells in the innermost chambers of your heart, of your soul.

The ritual of Maundy Thursday is an invitation to place your own particular, personal “it” into God’s hands. The “it” we place in God’s hands is central to our souls — our spirits, the invisible spark that makes you you and me me. This placing in God’s hands becomes startlingly real, enfleshed, visible, as the priest kneels on the unyielding tile floor and, with bare hands, washes feet, naked, exposed. It’s a solemn, sombre ritual. We don’t usually take off our clothes in church. We don’t usually experience having our feet, or any part of us, publicly washed. Few of us can remember the sodden experience of baptism, that first, most fundamental washing. We don’t usually have a priest kneel in front of us, doing both the representation and the reality of humble service.

The liturgy tonight is an invitation, focused like a laser on our hearts, to bare our souls. To strip away the layers of defenses and mistrusts and pride that perpetuate soul-loneliness, that prevent the longed-for deep, visceral connection with God, the relationship that shapes and sustains our spirit.

This connection is not always easily attained. “Lord, not my feet…” As Martin Smith has written:

The foot-washing throws light on how the Cross judges us. The issue is whether we will accept absolute and unconditional love and allow it to envelope and penetrate us wholly.…The mystery of damnation is the possibility deep in the heart of every human being of totally repudiating the embrace of Divine Love in a final “No.”…The mystery of salvation is the possibility in the heart of every human being of overcoming our dread of unconditional love and consenting with a yielding “Yes” to its victory over our shame and the healing of our alienation.[1]

But we know that tonight is different from all other nights. Perhaps at no other liturgy is the emotional, spiritual change so acute, so sharp, so sudden — from the bright Gloria and the ringing bells, to the darkness, silence, and solitude of the garden.

Tonight we strip our feet, we bare our souls. We strip the altar, removing the elaborate decorations that blunt and blur the stone table’s stark reality as a place of sacrifice.

And more. The familiar and beloved things we may think of as essential to our worship are taken down and carried away, helter-skelter: fine linen cloths, thick silk damask, vessels of precious metal, beeswax candles, books of prayers and hymns, cushions to kneel on. Gleaming brass lamps are extinguished. The bells are mute. The organ is silenced.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem and the city is in a tizzy (a loose translation from the Greek). This week, murder in a schoolroom; violence on a passenger jet. Last night at Tenebrae a candle crashed to the floor, shattering the glass follower. Today our country delivered a bomb of unimaginable magnitude halfway round the world. This is Holy Week, the time when things fall apart, the center does not hold.

We are not in control. It’s in God’s hands.

In the liturgies of Holy Week, step by painful step, we retrace the journey, physical and spiritual, that leads us on the winding path from that first lush Garden through the waves of the Red Sea, into the dusty valley of dry bones, to the upper room— the room where it happened— to the stark silhouette of the foot of the cross, and finally to the echoing emptiness of the tomb. Once again, we are most vividly reminded that without this prolonged, painful prelude, there is no fullness of Easter joy. These days have their own pace and we must submit to it— no leapfrogging from wherever you are, from whatever your starting point is, to land smack dab in the sweet spot of resurrection gladness. No — just like Jesus, and his mother, and those who loved him, and those who betrayed him, we must proceed step by step, into the darkness, where terrors — and triumphs— known and unknown await, where our eyes strain and hearts ache, searching for the light.

In the midst of this emptiness, a mirror looks into a mirror. We reach out our hands to receive the body of Christ. God’s life is in our hands. The one who took on our flesh is cradled in that flesh, to be incorporated into our own bodies, into our own spirits.

Our journey through these days will lead us to that time and place ‘when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.’ But not yet. Tonight is the night of jarring dissonances: our lives in God’s hands, God’s life in our hands. Standing still and silent in our midst is the altar. We bare our souls. We approach the altar. We alter our lives.

[1] A Season for the Spirit, p. 152

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