Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

In the ancient Mesopotamian myth the Epic of Gilgamesh, a selfish and abusive King Gilgamesh of Uruk is seeking immortality. By the end of the tale he becomes benign and benevolent but only after suffering loss and coming to grips with his own mortality. After losing his best friend Enkidu and going through a deep depression, Gilgamesh embarks on a long journey to see the Noah-like Utnapishtim and his wife—the only two mortals who have been granted eternal life by the gods. After a harrowing trip fraught with many perils, Gilgamesh arrives and learns from the ancient one secret stories of ancient times. Gilgamesh is then given once change at immortality. If he can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he will transcend his mortality and achieve eternal life. He fails. He falls asleep. He’s mortal and will remain so until he dies. After much suffering, loss, and failure, Gilgamesh finally reconciles himself to his own mortality.

King Gilgamesh then goes back to Uruk and surveys the wall he built around his capital to protect his people. He realizes that the wall is his legacy—that and the sacred stories of ancient wisdom he has brought back from his journey.

Today is “Maundy Thursday” or “Holy Thursday” or, if you’re Baptist like me, the Thursday before Easter. It commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet and gave them a new “commandment” (Latin mandatum or “maundy” in English) to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 13:34). That night the disciples followed him to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus told them to watch and pray, but like Gilgamesh they fell asleep (Matt. 26:36-46). They failed the test, and they would fail again. They ran away and hid when Jesus was crucified. Peter, who said he would never deny Christ, denied him three times before sunrise.

Wisdom only comes through suffering. Gilgamesh did not gain wisdom until he lost a loved one, suffered through mental illness, and failed an ordeal. The disciples did not gain wisdom until they too had fallen asleep, lost their master and friend, and failed miserably. Through their experience of loss and humility the disciples gained wisdom. They gained wisdom and a lot more. They did not merely resign themselves to fact that they mortal and must do good on this earth while they are alive. They received transformation through the resurrected and living Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who descended upon them at Pentecost (which is a story for another day).

Before we can experience the transforming power of the Easter miracle, we have to accept our own weakness, our frailty, our sinful humanity. A good place to start is by allowing someone to wash our smelly, ugly feet.

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