An old story told in a whole new way

Jamie Howison tells of Maundy Thursday in the soup kitchen

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his year, Maundy Thursday was a little different for the congregations of saint benedict’s table and All Saints Church. For several years we’ve shared together in a Maundy Thursday meal and liturgy, but this time around the two congregations partnered with Agape Table and retold the story of the last supper as if it had been set in the context of an urban food ministry. A bit of background is in order.

In many church traditions it is common practice to hold a service on the eve of Good Friday, and to retell the story of the last supper and of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The traditional name for the day is “Maundy Thursday,” which comes from the Latin word mandatum, or “mandate.” Recalling Jesus’ proclamation of the “new mandate” or “new commandment” that his disciples should love one another just as he had loved them (John 13:34), typically these services incorporate a foot-washing ceremony. As John tells the story in his Gospel, the way in which Jesus symbolically enacted his new commandment was through a gesture of deep servanthood. “(He) got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (John 13:4-5).

Back in 2005, when saint benedict’s table was still a relatively new arrival on the scene in the All Saints building, the All Saints community invited us to join with them in their established tradition of a Maundy Thursday pot-luck supper (augmented by seven or eight roasted legs of lamb…), into which was woven the story of the last supper, a simple table communion, and the foot-washing ritual. It was a great invitation, and so year after year twenty or twenty-five of us would join with fifty or sixty people from All Saints, and immerse ourselves in the meal, the story, and the rich symbolism. There was no question as to who organized the event, and where the lion’s share of work lay… the saint ben’s people were very much guests. Sure, we helped with the dishes and clean up, but the real work was carried out by a core of dedicated people from All Saints.

Coming into Lent this year, the request was made that the saint benedict’s table community organize and host the event, to which we readily agreed. However, rather than try to simply replicate the established pattern, we thought it best to offer something new into the mix.  Because we already had a relationship to Agape Table—the food ministry that not only serves up to 250 meals each weekday morning in our church hall, but also tries to provide other resources and opportunities for growth to its constituency—it seemed right to somehow incorporate their story into ours.

There is something about the work that Agape Table does—day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out—that resonates for us. Coming up to Christmas of the first year that saint benedict’s table worshipped in the All Saints space, I approached the director of Agape to ask what we might do to help with their work. His answer was wonderfully blunt: “Around Christmas, there is so much food and so many volunteers in the system that we don’t need anything. Talk to me about January, February, March and April.” So I asked what we could do in those other months of the year, and he suggested that fresh produce would be very much appreciated. I asked him if that included fruit as well as vegetables, to which he answered, “The closest we get to fresh fruit is jam. We’d love to have fruit.” Starting right then and there, we began our pattern of inviting people to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to church on Sunday nights.

But back to the story of our Maundy Thursday meal. I have to say that the staff of Agape was more than willing to come on board with us, and so we dreamed up our new take on how we might frame this great symbolic meal. Agape Table would cook up an extra one of their big pots of soup for us, and leave the tables set out just as they would be on an average weekday morning. We’d use their plates, bowls, coffee cups, cutlery, and plastic table covers, and set things up to serve the meal pretty much as it would be on a normal day in their work. We’d purchase the bread and coffee and anything else we’d need to accompany the soup, and host the meal. Participants were invited to give a donation for the meal, and while we suggested $10 per person, we made it clear that everyone was welcome regardless of what they could pay.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. I knew the soup would be good, and that the way in which we could offer the communion would be unique. Because we have a few theatre people in our congregation, I knew that our retelling of the story of the foot washing could be quite memorable (and a short video of what they created will appear on this site in due time). But here we were, messing with a long-valued tradition… as one of the people who came to help with the set-up commented, “I’m sure going to miss that lamb.”

But it did really work. It was great to see that the full house of some eighty people was pretty much evenly divided between the two congregations, and that so many families decided to come on board. It was important for all of us to discover that the Agape Table soup is good… really good. It was fun to watch as our two actors, Larry Campbell and Rob Kwade, presented that biblical foot-washing episode as if it had just happened that day in the soup kitchen. And it was really, really wonderful to share in those great stories and symbolic actions in a whole new way.

So, a tip of the hat to all of the people from All Saints who must have drawn a deep breath when they discovered that we were about to change things up for this year. A nod of thanks to Brett Schmall for creating our drama; to all of the people who helped with set-up, serving, and clean-up; to Agape’s wonderful soup cook for her willingness to jump on board; to everyone who came out and took part.

And did I mention that after expenses, we still managed to raise $640 for Agape Table? That’s good news indeed.

Jamie Howison

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