Telling the story

Today I’m wondering how many of us find in Maundy Thursday an experience like E.B. White described in an old issue of The New Yorker. He described a cowboy who commuted by plane between New York and Chicago. His job was to throw steers in the rodeos of both cities. The steers didn’t need to be thrown, but he threw them anyway for the entertainment of the audience. Then, White wrote,

The cowboy rises from the head of the fallen animal, dusts the seat of his pants, walks stiff-legged to the waiting airliner. The spectators, yearning for the open West and its herds of cattle on the ranges, rise from their mezzanine seats, stiff-legged, dust off their unfulfilled desires, walk to the exits.

Time after time we dramatize what happened that evening during Jesus’ last meal with his friends. We break the bread and share the cup of a sacramental meal, using words recorded from the oral tradition forty years later. We read about a foot washing; some congregations actually perform one, at least symbolically. Then we go home, often in silence, for the long vigil until Easter morning.

The liturgy is a rich one, full of symbolism, so we’ve been doing it for almost as long as there has been a church, and rightly so. But I sometimes wonder how often our experience is like that of the spectators at the rodeo E.B. White described. How many of us, yearning for the experience of that early group of disciples, rise from our seats at the end of the service, dust off our unfulfilled desires, and walk stiff-legged to the exits.

For forty years I’ve earned my living using words to try to make sense of this life. So my impulse has always been to try to say something intelligent and insightful about Maundy Thursday. But the longer I live with its mystery, the harder it is to find words that add anything significant to the story. The longer I live with the mystery, the more respect I have for the mystery itself, the more inclined I am to stand out of the way and let the scripture tell its own story, and the more I want to let the story have its quiet way with me and with all of us.

Elie Wiesel, in his novel The Gates of the Forest, related this Hasidic folk story:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

We may, sometimes, rise from our seats after a Maundy Thursday service and find our desire for the original experience of the disciples unfulfilled. Maybe it’s because we expect to make sense of a mystery. Maybe it’s because we think the experience depends on lighting the fire, saying the right words, or going to the right place. All those things have helped, but in the end it may be enough simply to tell the story and share the meal.

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