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A N D N O W I T ' S T H E L A W O F T H E L A N D.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Unexpected Meeting

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
My religious history is a long and winding road, from my christening at the age of six months down till now:  a story much too tedious to relate in one sitting, and of no use or interest to anyone but me.  Nor has it been a casual stroll down a blossom-covered lane; rather, times without number it has seemed a stony, uphill path leading only to Calvary.  As C. S. Lewis phrased it, I have "learned my driving in a hard school"; though whether anything I have learned can be of the slightest help to anyone else, I cannot possibly say.  I can only share and relate what has happened in this obscure life of mine, for whatever it may be worth to anyone else, and that is probably not much.

And I can speak only in Christian terms, because that is the only religious grammar and vocabulary I know.  Though I have come to realize at this late age that God is bigger than the Church, and bigger than the Bible; inconceivably bigger than we can comprehend:  a mystery, a joy, a boundless love at the heart of things I can in no way define but merely affirm.

Tonight I will share with you my Maundy Thursday story; and all I can do is tell it, not explain it. 

Continued after the jump . . .

In 1988 I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, to which I had felt drawn for some time, after a decade of churchless antipathy.  In particular I was drawn to the sacrament of Holy Communion; and I have always felt that this night, Maundy Thursday as we call it, is particularly holy and meaningful, even perhaps a little more so than Easter:  the institution of the Last Supper, the mystical body and blood of the Lord, the unbloody sacrifice at the heart of all that Christ is, and all that Christians are called to do and be.

In 1989, I celebrated Holy Week for the first time as a confirmed communicant.  In my church, the Maundy service is quite lovely and moving:  at the conclusion of the Eucharist, the altar is stripped entirely bare, scrubbed and cleansed, a white cloth is draped around the Cross, the lights dimmed, and the congregation departs in silence.  Very moving to those who apprehend all that is signified thereby.

But before Communion, there is the ceremony of foot washing, the reenactment of the humble action of Christ described in the Gospel, which in itself was a great symbol of the Divine Humility that was manifest in the Incarnation:  the Word made flesh:  God stooping from high heaven to the feet of broken, wretched humanity - all for Love's sake.   It was my first time ever to participate in that ceremony, which though unaccustomed I found very moving also for reasons any believer will understand.

I had come straight from work to church in the evening of a gloomy, rainy day; no time to eat dinner, but I knew that my mother, whom I had taken to live with me, was at home cooking something good for supper, which probably included gravy and biscuits and other tasty Southern fare.  So I suppressed my pangs of hunger during the service and focused my attention on what was being said and done.

However, the church was quite crowded that evening, with perhaps two or three hundred worshippers, almost all of whom participated in both the foot washing as well as in the Eucharist, which lengthened the service considerably.  If the service began at 6 o'clock, let us say, it was already about 8 before we began filing up the aisles for Communion.  Because of the unusually large crowd, in addition to the usual procedure at the altar rail, the priest had arranged for lay ministers to give out the consecrated bread and wine at the head of the side aisles too. 

I found myself inching forward along one of the side walls, earnestly enjoying the service and devoutly desiring Communion - though here I must confess that by this time I had already succumbed to the importunate demands of my stomach, and fastened on a plan to exit the church after I communicated, instead of returning to my seat.  Such is one of the little impious tricks that impatient Episcopalians are prone to, though as best I recall I had never done such a thing before, and rarely have since. Still, it had been a long day at work, and a long service, and I figured the Lord would not mind too much:  I had made it almost all the way through to the end, you know, and surely He understood how tired and hungry I was, and the appeal of Mama's cooking.

When I got to the head of the line, I was mildly surprised by the appearance of the lay minister who gave me the wafer:  a middle-aged fellow in a checked shirt with balding, sandy-red hair and a style of eyeglasses that had been out of fashion for above twenty years - someone who with his large, rough hands and rural accent one might more readily expect to encounter plowing a field on the farm than in the middle of an Episcopal service in the city.  Not that it made any difference to me; he smiled at me in a kindly way, put the wafer into my cupped hands, and after saying the requisite formula - "The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven" - did a rather odd thing:  as I was busy consuming the wafer and making the sign of the cross, he looked me in the face and gently said, "I love you.  I love you."

Which is not at all part of the Episcopal service.  But I took it as simply a spontaneous expression of Christian brotherhood there in the midst of this large impressive service, and moved on, and found my way back to the narthex, and then straight out the door I went to my car, homeward bound.  Having gotten what I came for, my thoughts were on my supper and the quickest route home.

But then something happened.  Just as I got into my car and shut the door, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding the key, it hit me like a slap across the face:  that man - that old redneck-looking guy who seemed so out of place - that odd stranger I had never laid eyes on before - that was Christ.

I don't mean he symbolized Christ.  Or stood in for Christ.  Or represented Christ.

I mean I realized with a shock that he was Christ.  That man, that paunchy old farmer type - who placed the Host in my hand, who said very kindly "I love you.  I love you." - that was actually Christ.


And I knew it absolutely; I didn't think it; I knew it.  Just as surely as when you have passed someone on the sidewalk, not recognizing them, and then two steps later you suddenly realize, Oh my God, that was So-and-so - you don't think it, you know with a sudden flash of recognition exactly who it was.

That man was Christ.  Beyond all doubt - beyond all understanding - impossible, yet as real as the car I was sitting in, the dark wet pines in front of me, the raindrops sprinkling my windshield.  I had just met Christ. 

And he had told me he loved me.  Twice.

My heart overflowed then.  It was some time before I was able to crank the car and start for home.

Well now fellas, that is my story, and you can take it or leave it.  I can no more explain it than I can explain rain out of a clear blue sky, or a cold day in July, both of which I have seen occur.  Sometimes wondrous things just come to pass, and that's all I can say about it.  Grace happens.

Now if I were writing this story for some evangelistic church magazine, I would be sure to add that this strange experience deepened my faith, improved my understanding, transformed my attitude, and brought a shower of blessings in its wake.

But it did none of those things.  I went on home and had supper with Mama as planned, and continued on with my life as usual the next day, the next week, the next month and year, no better than I should have done.  Nothing in particular resulted from it; I pondered it in my heart for a time, and then as always happens, the busyness of life made it recede further and further into memory.  Beyond that wonderful moment of recognition - my Emmaus Road - it has no particular significance in the story of my life.  I had already been a devout churchgoer for a couple of years, and I continued to be for several years more - until some tragic circumstances overthrew the tranquil pattern of life and put me through years of upheaval and grief, which in the course of time I did manage somehow to survive and outlive, owing in large part to my faith; as many millions of others have done down through the ages.

But I can't say this particular incident had any particular result.  It simply happened, and it is a lovely memory.  And that's all there is to this story, take it as you will.

Oh, and the farmer-looking guy?  I never saw him again.


David said...

Funny fact: For years I never even knew there was any service left after communion. We'd take it and mom and dad just kept on walking to the back and out of good old St. Paul's. Then we'd go to Waid's for pancakes.

Russ Manley said...

Haha, you know what I'm talking about David. The Episcopal vice, ducking out early. Grin.

FDeF said...

First, the story of your encounter was beautifully and lovingly told. It was both extraordinary and quotidian and that's what made it so real. Thanks for sharing that.

Catholics too, often skip out right after communion - to beat the traffic or to get to the beach. Remember, Catholic teaching can be very legalistic and it defines the "essential elements" of the Mass as three: the Offertory, The Consecration, and the Communion. So Catholics, who must go to Mass on all Sundays and Holydays under penalty of mortal sin, can technically arrive late (missing the Liturgy of the Word) and leave early (right after communion) and remain in good graces. You Episcopalians probably inherited the practice.

Russ Manley said...

Probably so. I've always loved the remark Robin Williams made in England one time: "The Anglican Church is like Catholic Lite: all the ritual, only half the guilt."

Glad you liked the story.

Sebastian said...

A very moving post, Russ. As for Catholics leaving Mass early, it is much more common in some parishes than in others. FDeF's statement about Catholic teaching is not quite correct. There is no doctrinal teaching on how much of the Mass one must attend. But old style moral theologians loved this sort of question: if you are obliged to attend Mass, just how much can you miss and have it still count? So the moral theology manuals of a bygone age offered opinions - no more than that - and the opinion described above was the most common.

A Blessed Good Friday and Joyous Easter to all!!!!!!

Russ Manley said...

Et cum spiritu tuo, Sebastian, and thanks for the clarification.

Which somehow reminds me of another favorite quote, Dolly Parton's line from Steel Magnolias: "God don't care what church you go to, as long as you show up!" Grin.

Mareczku said...

Thank you for that beautiful story, Russ. I love the Holy Thursday Mass also and share your sentiments on its importance. Easter blessings to you and all here.

Russ Manley said...

You're welcome, Mark, and a happy Easter to you and yours.

the cajun said...

Indeed, Grace Happens!
Many thanks for sharing.

Ultra Dave said...

That was wonderful Russ! Thanks for sharing it!

Russ Manley said...

Glad you liked, guys.

Tim said...

What a lovely story Russ, I think it was your turn to be shown you were known individually and loved, whatever lifes future travails.

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