Good Friday and Easter Sunday we have some comprehension of (or so we think). But what on earth is Holy Thursday all about? For many, even within the churches, it passes us by.
Astonishing, really, given that it is pregnant with meaning as the night before an execution indelibly marked in our religious fabric; and given that it narrates together two actions that crystalise both the awful tragedy and the the true hope of Christian faith. Namely, the arrest of the Holy, following on from an act of gratuitous generosity.
The traditional biblical stories (Mark 14.43-52, John 13. 1-16) are difficult, strange news to a world where the betrayal of God, and the seizure and imprisonment of the pattern of the divine in hateful (mostly religious) ideology is so coldly routine as to go almost unnoticed by its most eager practitioners or accomplices. It happens every time we condemn, dismiss, exclude, violate, deny, torture and kill in God's name - and every time such blasphemies are compounded by being defined as 'holy duties'.
Similarly, it is common for proudly 'muscular Christianity' to misconstrue the power-reversing lordship ascribed to Jesus (and embodied in his willingness to kneel and wash the toes of the most humble) by employing it to legitimate earthly patterns of power and domination.
In fact, these two construals of power - the self-giving and the other-controlling - are deeply inimical, and a choice has to be made between them. This is what we are confronted with in the visceral and theological turmoils of the Book of Revelation (which I have always contended is best understood as an admixture of redemption saga and revenge fantasy), for example.
The issue is this. Who and what finally sits on the throne? That is, who or what finally 'rules'? Is it the slayers of lambs (as the imagery puts it)... or rather the 'Lamb who was Slain' by those very slayers? The Easter drama clearly, painfully, invitingly tells us the answer to that question - but much that happens in the name of the church betrays the Easter Gospel or misses its point with deadly effects.
As someone once poignantly asked: "What difference would it have made to the history of the church in its internal and external relations if the central Christian sacrament had been foot-washing?" (or words to that effect). It is perhaps the less institutional, less ritualistic and more dissenting strands of Christianity which have come closest to answering that one in practice over the centuries.
What Holy Thursday's double trajectory reminds us is that, in truth, though not always in religious devotion (which has become dreadfully sentimentalised or ideologised), the profoundly subversive Easter narratives are precisely about turning 'natural' religious and political assumptions and practices upside-down, back-to-front and inside-out.
In the economy of the God as we meet it in the flesh and community of Jesus, the last come first, the outsiders become insiders, the dis-eased are comforted, the poor take precedence over the wealthy, the broken are made whole, the violent are disarmed, women are the true witnesses, children are blessed not abused, and the mighty are cast from their thrones... so that, through a "divine reversal" (Peter Selby) we can discover true communion, community, humanity and salvation (wholeness, from which we get 'holiness') together.
That is the shape of the "way, life and truth" to which Jesus invites those around him, personally and corporately - across history, beyond religious or ethnic loyalities, and in every locality. It amounts to utter gift, but it is also (precisely because it is gift, never possession) a total threat. The ethos of foot-washing in place of domination defies and deflates our egos, exposes our power games, challenges our at-ease with injustice, and unveils the myth of "redemptive violence" by which we seek to shape the world and constrain evil while actually perpetuating it (Walter Wink).
In short, the Christ-path robs those of us who would 'lord it' over others of the very power we/they need and crave. So, as Rene Girard says in his exposition of mimetic scapegoating as the primal mechanism of human social order, this troublesome Jesus has to be arrested and put on trial -- so that the big-dog-eats-smaller-dog status quo can be preserved, and even given the blessing, ritual and sanction of victimising 'religiosity'.
In this sense, the final Betrayer is victim, a pawn in a whole edifice of religious and political power which Jesus unravels by his way of being, sustaining, speaking, acting and relating. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the paradox (one in which we are all implicated, not conveniently absolved) so well, when he wrote: "Even Judas went forth to the Christ-work, and the fact that he did so will always be a dark riddle and an awful warning."
So as we contemplate the Garden of Gethsemane - the place of beauty and tranquility which is the antechamber to religious betrayal, human victimisation and state-sanctioned killing - we also begin to glimpse hope. Easter is about confronting (rather than avoiding) death, exposing (rather than colluding with) the Lie, and receiving (rather than controlling) the gift of life that is wholly beyond us... yet in our midst.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.