The journey through Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, offers the faithful so many vantage points, and so many fruitful opportunities for reflection, that I often make this journey with a trusted spiritual guide. The Anglican preacher and writer, Fleming Rutledge, knows the landscape well and I have come to rely on her wisdom and insight. This year I am working through her book The Undoing of Death, a collection of her sermons for Holy Week, preached across the years of her storied ministry.
For Maundy Thursday, the choice of spiritual vistas and biblical lookout points is especially rich. We could think long and profitably about Jesus’ institution of communion, by which the church remembers and partakes in his life and sacrifice. The Johannine account of the Lord’s humble action of washing the disciple’s feet invites us to reflect on the cost of being a servant and the opportunity to enter into new and fulsome forms of community. Our Saviour’s long ordeal in the garden before his arrest allows us to appreciate Jesus’ costly obedience to the Father, an obedience mirrored so poorly in the sleeping disciples.
This year, however, Fleming Rutledge showed me something I confess I had never consciously noticed before. In her sermon for Maundy Thursday, “The Lord Looked at Peter”, she zeroes in on Luke’s account of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, and the Jesus’ reaction – “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Lk 22:61) – which provokes Peter’s bitter and ashamed weeping at his faithlessness.
Here is some of Rutledge’s deep meditation on this simple line from Luke:
“The look of Jesus comes from the depths of the Holy Trinity the was in the beginning before the world was made. The look of our Lord is lit from within by the uncreated light of the incarnate Word. It is the look that goes along with the prayer that we said at the beginning of this service: “O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid …” Do you ever think about those words that we say so often? Can you focus for a moment on what this really means, no secrets hid from God? There is a sense in which we spend our whole lives hiding secrets not only from one another but from ourselves. There is no hiding from God, however. Peter tried to hide, but the Lord found him with that look. Jesus’ look penetrated through Peter like the “two-edged sword” in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “percing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of the One with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
How can we survive this piercing look? The answer is, we can’t, any more than Peter could. Something has to happen to us, something that we do not deserve, cannot earn, and have no right to expect. That is what we have been learning during these forty days and forty nights of Lent. Beginning with that long confession of sins which we said on our knees on Ash Wednesday, we have examined ourselves before the searching gaze of the Lord and we have repented in dust and ashes. I hope that many of you recognize this Lenten movement in our lives. It puts us in the right frame of mind for this evening at our Lord’s table.” (p 92).
Rutledge’s sermon is intended for a congregation that will shortly go forward to receive communion, on the night when the words of institution, “This is my body, this is my blood” ring clearer than on any other night of the Christian year. This strange and terrible year, we are cut off from the comforts of bread and wine, bereft of the companionship of the faithful in a hushed and darkened church. I mourn this privation.
Even in isolation from church and sacrament, we are nevertheless still under the Lord’s gaze, from which we could not escape should we wish to. Jesus’ gaze perceives all our pretensions to piety, all our failures of charity, all our inadequacies. Under this gaze, like Peter, I am a poor thing indeed. Should this gaze be pitiless, I could not bear it. Like Isaiah before the throne of God and its flaming seraphim, I would be lost.
Let us take comfort, then, that Jesus sees us clearly with loving eyes. Rutledge writes that “Jesus’ look is … a look of restitution, of reconsitution, of rectification. The transmission of this story, which must have been approved of by Peter himself, is the living testimony that the moment of Peter’s humiliation is also the beginning of his rehabilitation. Being judged and found wanting by God is, believe it or not, the very fabric of our salvation. It is in this judgement that we are redeemed. The Judge himself, at the very moment of Peter’s betrayal, is taking he judgement upon himself” (pp. 93-95).