In Uncategorized on April 11, 2009 at 8:02 am

All things considered, Maundy Thursday is my favorite service of the year. The Easter Vigil is a very, very, very close second, but if I had to pick, for me tonight is the most meaningful liturgy in the church calendar. There is so much going on tonight: the washing of the feet, the last supper and the institution of the Eucharist, which harkens back to and fulfills the Jewish Passover, the incredible upper room discourses, the stripping of the church, and walking to the altar of repose where the smell of flowers hits you before you even get to the stairs. Maundy Thursday is a multi-sensory liturgical experience.

I also love Maundy Thursday because of all the transitions, both biblically and liturgically, and all the befores and afters. Biblically, before tonight was the old covenant. After tonight is the new covenant. Before tonight the blood of the Passover lamb protected us from death. After tonight the blood of the Lamb of God delivers us from death. Before tonight our forefathers and mothers celebrated the Passover Seder. After tonight we celebrate the Eucharist. Before tonight Jesus was master and Lord. After tonight he is also a servant and friend.

Liturgically, we mirror this before and after by slowly transitioning, in a different direction, from joyful celebration, to stripping the church, and afterwards to waiting and praying. It’s as if Maundy Thursday is the large end of a funnel, and tonight we liturgically start down and get narrower, moving from celebration and life, to being stripped of everything, to watching and waiting, and then to death on Good Friday. Biblically, on this most holy night, the befores and afters go in a wonderful direction towards life. Liturgically, the befores and afters lead to the cross. That tension is why I love Maundy Thursday.

A little over two years ago I experienced a profound life transition when my father passed away, and as I look back, the evening he died reminds me in some significant ways of Maundy Thursday. That night was a time of transitions and tensions, it was a time of thinking back to all that had come before in my life, and it was a time of anxiously wondering what would happen next. As I fell asleep that night, I had three small dreams that spoke directly to the before and after of life and death, and tonight I’d like to share these dreams with you, because the texture of these dreams has a Maundy Thursday feel: a feel of transition, a feel of before and after, and a feel of tension.

When I got to the hospital on January 31, 2007, I was told that my father had passed away about ten minutes earlier. That news hit me like a punch in the stomach. I sadly went to his room, and as I held my dad’s hand, I was overwhelmed by two thoughts. First, whatever was happening, I knew that this was big, really, really big. Second, I was deeply aware that my dad’s death was in Christ’s image. Because Christ experienced death, human death is now in the image of Christ. I thought back to all my dad had meant to me in my life, and I wondered what my life would be like without him.

I cried as I drove home, and then cried and talked with Andrea. I felt sad and anxious, and I was waiting and longing for something, but I didn’t know what. After a while I tried to fall asleep, but I couldn’t, because, strangely, I kept thinking about atomic bombs.
Let me give you a brief context for this. A few weeks earlier I had read a book about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and the author said that in the Nagasaki bomb the fissionable material had lost mass, and that this loss of mass caused the explosion. Usually we think of nuclear fission not as a loss of mass, but as a chain reaction, the classic picture being a gymnasium floor completely full of armed mouse traps, with a ping-pong ball resting gently on each trap. If you throw one more ping-pong ball into the gymnasium, in just a few seconds the entire gym is full of flying ping-pong balls, because that ball springs a ball, which springs others, and the chain reaction is almost instantaneous, just like in a nuclear explosion.

But in the book I read, the author said another way to look at it was that the explosive charges in the Nagasaki bomb had significantly reduced the mass of fissionable material, and according to Einstein’s equations, lost mass is converted into incredible amounts of energy. I had never looked at it that way before, and this image of lost mass had been floating around in my mind for the past few weeks. On the night my dad died, for some reason that image of lost mass kept me awake. I couldn’t shake it, and I couldn’t fall asleep. As a therapist I have tried to train myself to welcome all thoughts and feelings, so I thought that maybe the destruction and loss of death was appearing to me in the image of lost mass and atomic destruction. Eventually I fell asleep.

My first dream was very brief, and in terms of the before and after of death, it clearly spoke to the after. I dreamt that a woman wearing dark glasses was looking at me, and as she looked at me she put on a fur coat, and took off her dark glasses. I woke with a start, and I knew instantly what this dream meant. Maybe atom bombs lost mass, but not my dad. This dream was not about lost mass, or lost anything, but about gain, gaining everything in the world. The fur coat was a putting on, gaining mass, being further clothed. I knew immediately this referred to Second Corinthians chapter five. Paul says in verse one:

“Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in (our body) is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked….because we do not wish to be unclothed, but to be further clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

The fur coat said in death my dad was not losing anything. Instead, he was putting on, and gaining, everything.

I also knew instantly that the dark glasses referred to First Corinthians thirteen: “now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” The woman taking off her dark glasses meant that the “then” was now for my dad. He did not see God darkly anymore. Now he saw God face to face. In death my dad had gained everything.

I was amazed at this small dream, and deeply thankful for its hopefulness. What a wonderful picture of what happens to us after death! I thought about this dream for a while, and then fell back asleep. My second dream was as brief as the first, and it also dealt with the after side of death. I dreamt that I was in a very large aircraft hangar, and a man of about forty was joyously leaping and dancing and doing pirouettes in large circles all around the hangar. Again I woke with a start, and again, I knew instantly what this dream meant. In death my dad had not been reduced or made smaller in any way. Now my dad was dancing in a world much bigger than this one. Now my dad was free.

On this side of death, on the before side of death, death so often seems like a reduction, a loss, a getting smaller, a freezing and stopping of everything. But my dreams were saying just the opposite. It was such a comfort to me that within hours of my dad’s death, I could feel him being clothed with life, and dancing with God in a gigantic world.

After a while I feel asleep again, and I had my third and final dream. This dream was clearly a before death dream. I dreamt I was in Arches National park, in Moab, Utah, which is one of my sacred places in the world. I was on a path, walking on the red desert soil, and on the ground I saw a dead rabbit. Behind me was double arch, and though everything else was completely silent, I could hear small rocks slowly rolling down the arches, and I knew the arches were slowly eroding.

Then I looked down on the ground again, and I saw an ear of corn. I picked it up, put the end to my mouth, and started inhaling as deeply as I could. I woke up suddenly, but this time the interpretation of the dream was not immediately apparent, and it took me a while to get a feel for the meaning. But slowly I began to understand.

In my very sacred place the symbol of the rabbit was from one of my favorite books, “Desert Solitaire”, by Edward Abbey. In this book Abbey talks about a dead rabbit, and how death is part of the rhythm of life. The arches, though seemingly immense and permanent, are slowly eroding, and one day will be gone. As the buffalo was the very life of the plains Indians, so corn was the very life of the native Americans who lived in the Moab area. By inhaling from the corn I was taking in all the life and mystery of this very sacred place.

Putting it all together, my last dream was about “this side” of the transition. On “this side”, before death, nothing is permanent. The rhythm of nature tells us that things are always changing. Life is born, and life dies. Incredible geology is slowly formed, and slowly erodes away. And, most important, the mystery of this changing life, on “this side”, before death, must be inhaled, taken in deeply, and lived to the full. Our life on this side of death is absolutely sacred.

We all can’t wait to get to heaven, where we will be further clothed, where we will see God face to face, and where we will dance in freedom forever. We all long for the eternal and the permanent. But though we long for heaven, we are not meant to simply wait for the sweet by and by. We are meant to experience this life of change and decay to the utmost, because “this side”, before death, is also sacred. This was the Maundy Thursday lesson of my dreams.

I am reminded of a marvelous quotation by Father Alexander Schmeman, a Greek Orthodox theologian. In his book “Great Lent”, he says….”Death is no more!…oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage, a passover, a Pascha–into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory.”

Every transition in this life, every time we go from a before to an after, involves death. Every disappointment, every change in a relationship, every move in a job, every sickness and disability, every economic downturn or political upheaval, involves death. And we instinctively hate to die. But, because Christ has redeemed even death, all our little deaths can become a passover for us into eternal life. Every change can be a change into heaven. If we inhale this life and take it all in, taking in even death, then this life will be heaven, even as we wait for the heaven that is to come. That is the great mystery of Christianity, and that is part of the mystery of Maundy Thursday.

When the life of our church is taken down and put away later this evening, it will hurt. We will be reminded that sometimes death follows life in an instant, and that even our Savior did not escape betrayal and the grave.

But hopefully the dreams I had the night my dad died will also remind us that whatever this life is, we must experience it to the full, because through Christ and in Christ this life is the entrace to heaven, being stripped of everything is the door to being completely clothed, trying our best to see in the dark is the path to one day to seeing clearly face to face, and being buried in the ground is the portal to dancing with God forever, in a world bigger than anything we could ever imagine.



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