Yesterday morning, a song from my early adulthood abruptly resurfaced in my head. I don’t understand what is happening when memory works this way, when one of our neural bookkeepers makes the decision to open an old and dusty file cabinet deep in a corner of the brain. But I do know that yesterday my synapses made a connection and I began to hear R.E.M.’s 1992 hit Everybody Hurts.
Everybody Hurts is an unusual song within the R.E.M. canon, both because of the lyrics are pretty straightforward and because they are entirely intelligible – R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, made poor diction and enigmatic ideas into an art form. But on this song Stipe sings simply and directly and clearly:
Take comfort in your friends.
You’re not alone.
Maybe this song showed up in my head because, a quarter of a century after its release, it occurred to me yesterday that it is a song for the Triduum. It is a song for this service that extends over three days, this service that ends today with the discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation:
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
This service is all about pain and about friendship and about not being alone. We proclaim these hard and beautiful realities through the use of symbols: dew or no occasions in the church year are as heavily laden with symbol as these three days.
All of these symbols are, in some way, about touch.
We began on Thursday with Jesus sharing a festive, final meal with his friends. Here is touch found in the washing of one another’s feet, in the embodiment of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as he loves and serves us. Sometimes folks will complain that the foot washing is goofy or awkward or even icky. To which I can only reply: Yes. Yes, you’re right. It is goofy and awkward and icky. To wash one another’s feet, to touch and be touched in such a fashion, is to engage in act of deep mutual vulnerability.
And if the tender intensity of the foot washing is not enough, here is the removal of the sacrament to the high altar, to the garden, and the stripping and the washing of the altar. On Maundy Thursday, I have the privilege of touching the altar on your behalf. And this year I was startled as I did so, I was startled to find myself transported as I first washed and then dried the altar. As I touched the wood of the table, I abruptly found myself touching my father-in-law’s coffin, my hand upon its wood as it rested in the church at his funeral.
Yesterday, on Good Friday, all of us rested our hands upon wood, this time the hard wood of the cross. Somehow, this simple action of devotion holds all of the loneliness and all of the love and all of the pain and all of the longing that there is. Everything is there in the cross. The wood is rough and filled with the story of life and death.
And then there is today. A walk or a journey is an ancient part of this service: scholars tell us that the first days of the church, the Easter Vigil made multiple stops, each stop taking the worshipper ever nearer to Jerusalem. Tonight, we began around the fire, touched by its warmth. And then we walked, our feet in touching the holiness of the earth, our feet in communion with the ground. Like the cross, this walk is somehow also everything. It is the journey through the Red Sea and into freedom. It is the journey from life into death or death into life.
In not so long, we will touch one last symbol, one last sacrament, the Eucharist. While this symbol is more familiar to us than the washing of feet – we engage in it every Sunday – in many ways it is just as goofy and awkward and icky as the washing of feet. We come to the altar with this amazingly childlike gesture, palms open before us:
What could be more vulnerable, more filled with longing, than that?
What could be more wondrous than the promise that, in bread and in wine, we touch Jesus, and Jesus touches us?
One of the difficult privileges of my work is sitting with people in loss and in grief. And what I’ve come to understand is that everyone, everyone is carrying big hurt. We sometimes imagine that we are alone in our woundedness. But what I have come to know is that, when we create a safe space with one or more other people, a space in which we can hear and tell the truth, we learn that woundedness is universal and shared.
Everyone has a story of suffering to tell: the story of the marriage ravaged by addiction or infidelity, ravaged by promises abandoned; the story of the diagnosis, of the news that the doctor has run out of treatments; the story of cruel words that, even though it is sticks and stones that may break our bones, have unmistakably hurt us; the story of the unexpected and heartbreaking phone call;; the story of the loss of the job and, with it, the loss not just of income but of identity.
The Triduum, these three holy days, embodies the promise that we do not suffer by ourselves. There is a community that loves us and cares for us that is with us always. There is a God who loves and cares for us who is with us always.
We reach out in our lostsness and searching. And we touch – we are touched – by love.