Thursday, 13 April 2017

I thirst (Maundy Thursday 2017)

He has sweat blood, he has been betrayed, tried, and scourged. He has carried his cross, fallen, been nailed hand & foot, and been raised up to die in one of the most excruciating ways possible.

He has forgiven his murderers, promised a thief paradise, given the care of His mother to a beloved disciple. And he has, in these last moments, felt the loss of that presence which has been closer than His nearest human breath throughout his ministry.  

Utterly alone. Forsaken. And now, ‘I thirst.’

There is a primal need to thirst, a yearning, a desperation. We are, after all, creatures that are 2/3 water. What those of us who have done a Ramadan fast – especially in the summer – remember is not the hunger, but the desperate need for water. That is why what I call ‘intermediate forms’ of fasting allow liquid as they deny – or curb - our food.

Think about the words we use when we have nothing left: our tank is empty; we are spiritually dry; someone is ‘dried up’. It is no coincidence, I think, that early Fathers sold everything and fled to the driest place on Earth, the place that would keep them right on the edge of death, to face their demons and strip right back to the essence of their relationship with G-d.

Thirst is bone deep; thirst is need; thirst is a desire for life – even from the cross. And Our Lord’s thirst isn’t a passive thing: it is not ‘I am soooo thirsty,’ or the Spanish ‘Tengo sed’ – ‘I have thirst.’ He thirsts – it is active; it is a desire on the hunt.

But for what? He physically thirsts, clearly – Jesus was fully human, and it had been…rather a tough day so far, with the words of the Psalmist to fulfil before it was accomplished.  Thus, the vinegar on a sponge. But, as always with Our Lord, there is so much more.

Just as we use thirst figuratively: we thirst for knowledge, thirst for righteousness, thirst for justice, so does He. But again, for what? Augustine offers us a possible answer in a phrase I saw every year during Lent when I regularly attended the Oratory: sitit sitiri – G-d thirsts to be thirsted for. Perhaps. But there is something unsatisfactory in this – this mutual longing feels incomplete; it lacks connection; it smacks of unfulfilled relationship – and no little emotional manipulation. Thirst for G-d or else YOU are dehydrating Him!

But if we flip back to earlier in the gospel of John, we get a glimmering. Picture the scene: a hot day in Samaria, a well, and a woman approaching it to draw water for her family. A young man sitting there commands her, “Give me to drink.” Left unsaid, “I thirst.” We all know her response, “Seriously? You, a Jew asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” (Not quite KJV, but still.) His response is an unexpected one: If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.

The therapist in me loves this line, because when someone tells you what they would give you, more often than not, they are telling you what they want from you. Jesus will give us living water, and there is a not-so-faint echo of the later And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament. 

Our Lord doesn't just thirst for us to thirst for him. He thirsts for us.

The us He knit together in our mother’s womb, the us He dreamt we would be when He created us. The us that not one of us could create, but that these fragile bodies of ours contain. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “I am the vessel. The draught is G-d’s. And it is G-d who thirsts.”

Ah, we may think, great! The draught is G-d’s, I am the vessel, there’s this whole pour your life out as a libation thing. All I have to do is be like the guy in the parable of the talents who puts the talent in the ground and gives it back to the Master unchanged – conveniently forgetting just how well that worked for him.

But there’s a catch. We have this treasure of G-d’s draught in earthen vessels. And earthen vessels have a habit of leaching and changing that which they contain. Every choice we make through the free will granted us changes the draught of G-d’s contained within us for better or for worse, makes it bitter or sweet.

Oh, we think, I’ll ignore the niggle of my conscience just that one time. I can’t forgive him, so I won’t try. I’ll miss out that little kindness. I’ll tell that little lie. I’ll keep quiet about that wrong I know is happening, someone else will take care of it. But those ‘slips’ become habit, and many littles soon become a tsunami of sin. Or, as @absurdistwords once noted in a Twitter thread, you can only play Devil's advocate for so long before you realize that the Devil actually has you on retainer.

And so often, it is more subtle than that, isn’t it, especially when you’re working for the Church? Of course twisting that person’s arm was the right thing to do, it was for G-d. Of course I know what THEIR spiritual path should be, all the while ignoring how far I’ve come off course. I was right to ostracise them, they’re a heretic. The obsession with bums in pews whilst neglecting the souls of those sitting in them. I was right to offer fraternal correction in public, his humiliation is G-d’s will. The creeping spiritual arrogance, the pride that we, at least, are doing G-d’s work. We would do well to remember Hammarskjold’s admonition: It was when Lucifer first congratulated himself upon his angelic behaviour that he became the tool of evil.

Or, to put it in Holy Week terms: Where in our journey do we avoid reaching Golgotha, refusing to get up the first, second, or third time we fall? Where do we demand the resurrection without the crucifixion, or, playing the martyr, refuse to allow G-d to take us down off our cross, so He can move us from crucifixion to resurrection?

So now what? Are we to despair? Is it impossible for us to sweeten this draught? Will we forever embitter it? Again – can you tell I’m currently reading Markings? – Hammarskjold points the way through the prayer Our Lord taught us:

Hallowed be thy name 
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done 
Give us peace with thee
Peace with men 
Peace with ourselves
And free us from all fear.

Free us from fear? Ah, now that might be a way forward, since all sin is, somewhere, based in fear. But how, in these darkest of times? 1st John tells us: perfect love casteth out fear. But how do we poor humans find perfect love? By falling into the arms of the one who spread them on the cross for us.

Relying on our own meagre human resources, we will soon make the draught undrinkable. But through surrender to Divine will, we become the finest vintage imaginable, the one He intended us to be. And then, He can lift up our vessel and quench His thirst: not by drinking as we drink, but by putting it to the lips of our thirsty neighbour – the sick, the poor, the refugee - those lives He means us to touch & heal, pouring out our lives as a libation until it is accomplished. 

1 comment:

Usha Reifsnider said...

Thank you for this. I wish I was there. I remember the 1st time I heard you speak. It was Ash Wednesday 2015.