On Thursday night, I was rather scattered with school work and the stress of the “Davidson bubble.” My mind was running in a million directions when my friend, Rahael, invited me to join her and our friend Lydia for a Maundy Thursday service. I had never attended a service of this kind before and decided to take a risk, to go – and I am grateful for it. In the wooden pews of the Davidson Presbyterian Church sanctuary, I witnessed an exchange that has completely changed my perception of the Easter season.
The service was formed as an effort to unite two distinct Presbyterian congregations – Davidson Presybterian Church, a small and mighty African American community, that welcomed members of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, a predominately white, wealthy church. In an era of persistent divides among races in our churches and communities, Davidson provides no exception. Though the two churches live two hundred meters from one another, for most of the year, they remain separated by a segregated past, culturally disparate worship practices, and the economic divide of railroad tracks.
Yet in one moment, one exchange, this system broke down. Kneeling on the floor, a middle-aged white man bended down to take the feet of an elderly black woman, to tenderly wash her feet and laugh with her, to hold her in a cleansing prayer before gently removing her feet to dry them again. The miracle was even greater when I saw their positions switch – if it was not humbling to go on his knees, it was even more humiliating to be touched and washed by another. I was grateful to share foot washings with Diana – a woman who was serving for the entirety of the service, and finally sat down to have her feet washed. She smiled as she prayed for me, and I felt as if we had entered unforeseen territory.
There is something unmistakable and humbling about the visceral experience of holding the feet of another in one’s hands – footwashing is an experience of connection to what is most human, unpure, and thus most loved by God between us. In those moments, orchestrated by the choir singing Gospel music and the effortless flow between members of both congregations, I witnessed some power at work – a power that the Christian faith may profess as the Spirit in our midst.
The sermon that evening, spoken by an up-and-coming, bright woman with a voice for the heavens, put the foot-washing into perspective. During her reflection, she reminded us that first and foremost, no one is beneath (or above) the love of Jesus. We were all equal – period, end of story. All of our feet are dirty and all of our hands are capable of blessing. Two, in light of the message of Holy Week and the events of the Last Supper, she asked us to examine the way that we had killed Jesus within us. The message of the resurrection cannot be preached without an understanding of Jesus’ death as it happened then, and continues to happen by our daily indifference.
The words pierced me through the very “peace” that I had carried with me into the sanctuary. She questioned us to examine – how have we denied Jesus’ power with our unnecessary worrying, striving, proving ourselves? How have we distanced ourselves from God by distraction? How have we give in to secrecy, failed to ask for forgiveness, held our hearts back?
She placed a mask on her face to turn to ask us: In the light of Christ’s power, His exposure of the world’s darkness, what are we hiding behind?
There is a comfort to hiding, I believe. As a child, I very rarely wanted to be found during hide-and-seek. I enjoyed staying where no one could discover my secret location (an element of pride, perhaps) or where someone could bother me. When it comes to my daily life, I hide behind an infinite list of roles, lists, tasks, words, activities just to feel secure. I hide behind relationships. Screens. Statements of beliefs. I hide out of fear of encountering the very emptiness that lies beneath all that I cling toward for hope, safety, comfort.
The pastor removed her mask. God sees beneath, she assured us. This statement was both terrifying and freeing – if God sees beneath, what does She see?
The question remained with me, particularly as I heard the story of Easter read this morning:
Mary Magdalene, like many of us, panicked when she could find the one who was her teacher. If it was not enough to lose him to death, what was she to do when he was no longer where they laid him? How could she mourn if he was no longer present?
There is no simple answer, nor solution, to loss. When we encounter death, it is most likely that we plaster new layers onto the masks that we wear – we get busier, or we hide behind new addictions. When we see our own brokenness, utter emptiness, there is a great temptation to run away.
The miracle to Easter morning, to me, was that Mary Magdelene did not run. She wept. She mourned until she saw the apparition of one asking her, Woman, why are you weeping? It was then, in her confrontation with loss, that she was able to see her Lord calling to her. A human-to-human interaction of pure encounter – not unlike the footwashing on Thursday night in Davidson. Christ, risen beyond all probability and expectation, met Mary Magdelene in the midst of her doubt and confusion – exactly where, and only there, was she prepared to receive the Good News.
What does it mean to come to Easter morning, to see the stone rollen away from the tomb? If the stone is the mask that we wear in our daily coping and assimilating, what happens when it shatters? What happens when the tomb, which we desired to hold our relics of God, becomes emptied? Where is our hope found when our idea of Jesus is nowhere to be found?
Precisely in this phrase – Jesus’ coming out. As I heard preached in DPC on Thursday night, Jesus is coming out every time we try and place him in a tomb. He refuses to be confined to death, to ideology, to our world’s assessment of him. He defies expectation and exceeds worldly standards of grace. He comes out to expose the truth – that death is no more, and through his rising, we are all called to leave the tomb with him.
What does this mean – this week of mourning, feet washing, joining at table together, remembering the death and the miraculous apparition of that man named Jesus of Nazereth? Perhaps Easter is best explained as a day of origins. We remember in Jesus’ passion and death the Source of life which resurrects us from our own deaths. We remember the original desire that God held for us to live in communion with one another. And we remember the original hollowness with which we were created – the empty place in our souls where the Risen Christ enters, and calls us to come out of hiding. He desires us to walk out of the death of the past and walk forward with him.
The Easter way of “coming out” is not a simple nor rationally-explicable way of being in this world. There are too many ways to hide from death in our society. Yet something in me compels me to believe that the force unleashed through the death and resurrection of Jesus emboldens and yearns for us to come out of ourselves – out behind our masks of separation – and join a larger reality. A reality of footwashings between strangers, of communities breaking barriers between them to worship God together, a reality of people taking off their masks together.
As my Spanish professor reminded me this week, our origins are not our beginnings. While we have many beginnings, we have one origin. The empty tomb and Risen Lord of Easter demands that we hearken to the truth of all that must we must die to this world, and all its false appearances, in order to find life. All the lies that must be unmasked to see God standing before us. And most importantly, Jesus calls us to a life that we cannot foresee – a life beyond the walls of the tomb where our old pinnacles of truth, our old ways of division, our old images of God and ourselves, have been buried.
There, in the unimaginable path of Easter, Jesus calls us to walk daily. Risen with Him, we might return to our true origins; we may come to walk and live as our truest selves in God. Friends, the stone has been rolled away. Our emptiness is exposed. There is no longer any place to hide. May we come out to bear the love that we have witnessed and been given – one step, one foot, one encounter – at a time.