A Week of Firsts

KY nuns 1989

This week has been a week of religious firsts in my family.

Last night I attended my first Maundy Thursday service.  Before this year, I had never heard of Maundy Thursday so if you don’t know what it is, I feel you.   For those not in the know, Maundy Thursday is the religious commemoration of when Jesus –embodying humility — washed the feet of the twelve apostles, then went to reflect in the garden of Gethsemane.   A new friend of mine, someone in one of my classes in school, was the deacon at this Episcopal service; he and all the others at his church welcomed me among them.

To be honest, with all the talk of Holy Week right now, I feel like I have never heard that term before even though I’ve been in seminary for two years now.  I think some of it is attention that the new pope is bringing.   Even I get the BIG DEAL it is that Pope Francis washed the feet of two women as part of the Maundy Thursday service, which was held not in some grand church, but in a prison.

The reason it is important that Francis washed the feet of women is two-fold: he was willing to touch a woman (not so the last Pope) and the chosen twelve for this ritual cleansing act stand in for the apostles and thus have traditionally been confined only to men.  Catholic priests trace their authority to the apostles; that all twelve original apostles were men is a big excuse (I mean reason) why women are not ordained in the Catholic tradition.  Francis’ decision to wash the feet of women could signal a seismic shift on this very tender issue.

Indeed, some of it is my waking up to a new part of the religious world because I am serving a Christian congregation this year.  As a child, my family celebrated the secular aspects through egg dying and hunting.  As an adult I have not been a big fan of Easter.  It is too much entangled with the torture of a prophet, even though I am repeatedly told that it is a celebration not of that suffering, but of the rebirth.  What can I say?  I still very much struggle with this aspect of Christianity and I am working on it.

For my husband, it was attending his first ever Passover seder.  We were both thrilled at the invitation.  For him, it was his first.  For me, I had not been invited for several years and had begun to miss this part of my spiritual life.  We had a blast with nearly 20 people and one dog, a L – O – N – G story with quotes from multiple faith traditions and a deep dedication to the whole ritual (not to mention really, really good food and company).

Though I did not grow up with Passover as part of my tradition, in college it became a beloved one, seeped in social justice-focused haggadahs that really called out to me the message of liberation.  The seders were casual to say the least, creative, and the haggadah was a co-evolving process.

My final year of college found me spending what would become known as “alternative spring break” (but in the late ‘80s, it didn’t yet have that branding…) outside of Burea, Kentucky, sleeping in the basement of a small Catholic church run, clearing land and repainting dilapidated homes in that part of Appalachia.  Three amazing Catholic nuns ran the church.  They changed my mind filled with stereotypes of nuns always angling to wrap their students’ knuckles.  That year Passover was during spring break; in that basement, we had put together a rag-tag seder that was one of the best I have ever attended.  (The photo with this posting is of the nuns and some of us students, including me in those overalls…)

I have attended seders hosted by friends of my brother (who is an observant Jew, as is his whole family).  He now lives far away but who travels, with his family, to his old haunt in New Haven each Pesach season.  Sometimes, I have attended these as well (my brothers friends have been, to a one, always inviting, loving, and welcoming in this regard.)   I have attended seders at the homes of lovers’ parents.  A dear friend, more traditional in her leanings, used to invite us to the seders she held while her children (now college-aged and out of the nest) were home.  Filled with more goyim than Jews, those were lovely seders, abbreviated and not particularly political.

Certainly, as I struggle with Easter, there are struggles, too, with parts of the Passover story.  God is hard-hearted when continually hardening the heart of Pharaoh so that God might show god’s might.  Hard-hearted and wrathful.  I mean, what up with all that Pharaoh is about to let Moses and the Jews go, but then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he changes his mind back?  Not good for the Jews, not good for the Egyptians, and kinda wrathful, immature leadership on behalf of the All Knowing Holy One.  It’s stories like that, and like the Flood, that lend credence to process theology that encourages us to see God co-evolving in some kind of concert with humanity and creation.

For the past quarter century, I have regularly referred to what I learned at my first Passover – that some Jews wanted to stay in Egypt because the known  (even slavery) was preferable to the unknown (freedom).  I have found this to be an important piece of wisdom as I have engaged nearly every soul I have met, including my own soul.   Yet this year, the Passover lesson that is calling out to me much more is the one of the reluctant prophet.   Once I gather my thoughts together on that, I’ll be sure to share.