A few years ago, leading up to Holy Week, I was about 50/50 on becoming an Anglican. I saw some things I liked, I didn’t understand a handful of other aspects, and I wrestled with leaving a tradition that raised me. And then Holy Week got me. It was all over from there.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Anglicans have the market cornered on Holy Week. Though we tend to do more with Holy Week than other Protestants in the USA, these liturgies are something shared by the whole body of Christ, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox included. Nevertheless, it was my Anglican exposure to Holy Week, and specifically the Maundy Thursday service, that cemented my commitment to the Anglican tradition.
On Maundy Thursday, two powerful things happen:
- the rehearsal of Jesus’ example of sacrificial love by washing feet and
- the stripping of the altar in anticipation of Good Friday.
A little background: My own insecurity, dysfunction, and macho instincts lead me to be hesitant about crying. I can cry. I have. But I certainly don’t like to. And I like to think I can control it. I’m certainly not an ugly cry-er. But as I sat in a pew, waiting for my feet to be washed by my priest, corralling the rest of my family, contemplating the course of Jesus, I lost it.
I was audibly weeping, sniffing, tears streaming. The closest to an “ugly cry” I’ve ever come. I walked forward and sat down on the front pew with my family. “Alex, may I wash your feet?”, my friend and priest asked. I felt as if Jesus were asking the same thing. And like Peter, I thought, “Never!” I can do that myself, thank you. No need. I got it under control. I can handle it. I’m a man, after all, self-sufficient and independent. And the icon of Christ grabbed my grubby feet and a wet towel, and he wiped them clean. I was undone.
As an ordained Anglican leader myself now, I wonder what would happen if Maundy Thursday foot washings were instituted at a global level throughout the Church. What if our pastors were storied into washing our feet once a year? How would that affect those given to “celebrity pastor” ambitions, extravagant expenditures on the backs of their congregations, or abusive lashing out at the first sign of questioning?
How would it impact church conflict? Pastors being reminded: these are Jesus’ sheep. Serve them. Congregations being reminded: a pastor who loves them, kneeling down to wash one of their dirtiest body parts. How can I respond to a pastor and a church that sacrificially loves me? I know there are failings within the Anglican tradition and conflict and arrogance. But certainly this is a gentle, regular reminder at least once a year to check one’s ego at the door.
Stripping the Altar
And then after this extreme act of humility and service, the altar is stripped. The visceral image of Jesus’ mission failing, the disciples abandoning him—feeling as if God went dark. Hope fades. Dreams dashed.
Of course, I knew all this. I’ve heard the story. But here I saw it. I felt it. I experienced some of the heart-ache and sorrow of the Thursday before Sunday. Here, failure was embodied. I was able to enter into both the love and suffering of Christ.
When every Sunday is a re-celebration of Easter, why focus on the days before? We know how it ends. Why focus on this story of Thursday-Saturday? Days devoid of victory, of shredded hopes, of drained goodness. For me, it helped me see that the healing of the world is achieved in this way, and only this way, and in no other way. The weight of the world’s evil—my evil—is set on Thursday, experienced on Friday, crushed on Saturday. Walking the rest of the Triduum prepared me for the joy of Easter Sunday.
In some ways, I’ve never looked back from that Holy Week. It cemented me within the Anglican tradition. But in other ways, Holy Week taught me to always look back—entering the days-long story anew each year.
Alex Sosler (@alexsosler) is Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College, near Asheville, NC, where he also serves as a transitional deacon at Redeemer Anglican Church. Alex is married to Lauren and dad to Mariela, Auden, and Jude.