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Psalm 57.1-3

Acts 5.12-16

The Shadows Know

Maundy Thursday

John Henry Newman was a Catholic priest, later a Cardinal, whose life very nearly spanned the entire 19th century; he was born in 1801 and lived until 1890.  Newman once wrote a prayer that has found traction in the church, to such an extent that one of my seminary preaching professors required us to memorize it.  You may have heard it before:

“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and evening comes, and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then in your tender mercy, grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at the last.  Amen.”

It has come to be called Cardinal Newman’s prayer, and I love the simplicity of its language and its evocative imagery: “…until the shadows lengthen and evening comes, and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.”  You get the sense of a life and a calling fulfilled, of a reward richly earned.  It is naturally most often prayed at a memorial service, or at graveside, as it serves to send the soul into glory.

Shadows figure prominently in our service tonight.  As the bulletin reminds us, the service of Tenebrae is a service of shadows, the lengthening of shadows as the light is gradually extinguished, representing the disciples falling away from Jesus, one by one, until no one is left at his side.  We’re cheating a little tonight, leaving the lights on for the most part until the end, but this has more to do with our minister’s eyesight than with any particular Maundy Thursday theology.  Maundy Thursday is a dark evening; we will hear the story in a few moments about the various shadows, the shadow of betrayal, the shadow of desertion, the shadow of condemnation.  The shadows don’t seem to be a very desirable place to live.

There is some Hebrew tradition behind this.  The shadows, or more literally, the “shades,” in Jewish custom are the souls of the departed, the spirits of the dead who live on in the underworld.  In Hebrew faith and tradition, the underworld is not a place of punishment or damnation; there is no room in Jewish faith for hell.  The underworld is simply the next form of life, whatever follows this one; it is neither reward nor punishment, neither heaven nor hell, it is simply a state of being, the afterlife, and nothing to be afraid of.

On Maundy Thursday, the shadows are dark ones.  But the Bible is of more than one mind about shadows.  They can be neutral, as with the shades of the Hebrew afterlife.  They can also represent a safe space, a place of refuge, of health and wholeness, and we heard both this evening.  The psalmist wrote, “Be merciful to me, O God… in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until the… storms pass by.”  Psalm 17 reads, “Guard me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”  And the prophet Hosea declares, “They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”  The shadow of the Almighty is a good place to be, where humanity blossoms like a fine wine, where you and I can find refuge and rest; there is safety and security in the shadow of God’s wings.

Our brief passage from the New Testament draws out the idea of the shadow as a salubrious place to be, one that promotes health and wholeness.  In the early pages of Acts we learn that the disciples were performing miracles in Jesus’ name:  “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.  [People] even carried the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.  A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.”  In the power of the gospel, Peter’s very shadow proved, not just a safe and secure place to be, but a healing and restorative one as well.

And what is it that moves us this night from the shadow of betrayal and desertion to the shadow of healing and health?  On Maundy Thursday, the night of shadows, it is Jesus’ moving through them and among them that leads us to wholeness    Tonight he walks through the shadows, and tomorrow he will die in the darkness:  “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Then Jesus’ crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  Having said this he breathed his last.”  And in that moment the darkness was defeated, and the shadows no longer rule, because how can a shadow exist in complete darkness?

Rachel Hackenberg wrote in today’s Lent Devotion, “The shadows of Lent have almost reached their longest hour.  The tension of Holy Week is nearing its climax.  The ordinariness of a meal shared between teacher and disciples is about to be broken apart in surreal anguish.  Mark this moment, before all hell breaks loose… Mark this day… before all heaven storms earth…. Remember his day – the ordinary day before everything changes… Mark this moment.  This is the beginning.”

Mark this moment.  We still sit in the Tenebrae of Thursday.  But Jesus will transform the shadows we create tonight, and the time spent in the dusk of tonight and the darkness of tomorrow will open our eyes and our hearts to reveal to us what it means to live safely in the sure shadow of God’s outstretched wings.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


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