In one of his continuing attempts to land a knock-out blow on religion, Richard Dawkins once held up for ridicule a saying of Tertullian, the second century theologian - “Credo quia absurdum”, “I believe because it is absurd.” By revealing this to the world, Dawkins hoped to show that Christianity was anti-rational, anti-reasonable and of unsound mind. The only flaw in his argument was that Tertullian never actually said it, but as many a journalist has said, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
What Tertullian did say was something rather different. He pointed out the astonishing upside-down-ness of Christian belief, that its claims were outrageous in their challenge to conventional thinking and the ‘sensible’ way of looking at the world. And for that reason, he makes a good starting point for Maundy Thursday.
It’s just about possible to read the Palm Sunday story as a Triumphal entry, so long as we relegate the donkey to the ‘Ahhhh’ factor of the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary. But as the Great Three Days begins, we have no choice in the upper room but to see this upside-down world of Jesus and his disciples. Two thousand years of repetition may have dulled the edge for us, but for the master of his own free well to step down from his position of honour to take the lowest role on offer, that of the lowest slave is unusual to say the least.
Convention says that we look at the Maundy Thursday foot-washing and interpret it as a sign of the Serving Christ, of Jesus’ humility, and liturgies all over re-enact the footwashing particularly to pick up on this servanthood idea, usually taking someone who is honoured and powerful - a monarch, a nobleman, a bishop, the assistant curate - and putting them into the role of the humble one. It’s probably good for their souls.
But I think that risks missing a bigger picture. Surely John’s Gospel is setting a scene here for how we are to understand the events of the next few days - that nothing is as expected, that everything is not quite as it seems. Judas’ handing over of Jesus appears pre-arranged by Jesus, who hands the piece of bread over to Judas ‘And Satan entered into him’. The place where the Son of Man is glorified is on the Cross. Death marks a new beginning. The gardener isn’t. And so on, and so on. At every turn, the story of the Great Three Days defies conventional wisdom and goes in radical and new directions.
The poem by Peter Abelard, ‘solus ad victimam’, printed inside the back cover of the service book, shows how Abelard spotted this contradiction something like 900 years ago: “this night injustice joins its hand to treason's, and buys the ransom-price of humankind.”; “This night the traitor, wolf within the sheepfold, betrays himself into his victim's will;” it is a poem well worthy of meditation. It alerts us that snap answers and jumping to conclusions aren’t the way to experience the Three Days, especially when we try and enter the mystery of the Cross, and Resurrection. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” might have been written as a warning against a wish to make a neat and legally binding package out of the Death and Resurection of the Lord.
Let us soak ourselves in the story of these next few days in the expectation of being surprised and of our preconceptions being overturned. Is God the offended magistrate demanding that Injustice be done so that honour is satisfed? Is Resurrection about after-life insurance? Where does the power in John’s story of the Passion really lie? Where do the rulers of this world and their conventional thinking fit in with the Gospel story? When we talk about the mystery of God, it is this sort of testing, puzzling insight of which we speak, one which stretches us.
In the Lent service booklets, there is a poem by RS Thomas which some of you may have read. As preparation for the upside-down nature of the Three Days, I commend it to you for Reflection.
It's a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It's a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
It probably tells us more about what we’re about to live through than many a rousing chorus or worthy sermon.