This is the first Icon I ever had written by an Athonite friend whose icons I have always loved and of which I have requested a dozen originals over these 20 years of priestly ministry. Don’t be impressed. The purchases represent money I should have invested for retirement. Also they correctly indicate that my love for Jesus is only matched by my love of shopping.
In the early morning as I drink my coffee or tea and wake up into a new day, the rising sun’s early glow reflects on my wall of icons and in particular, against their goal leaf. This means that my first glimpse (I keep my lights off from darkness until past sunrise) is of the backgrounds of the icons since the painted parts remain in jet black darkness until the sun is entirely risen.
Of course, having lived with this icon of the Beloved Disciple near me for 20 years (I requested its writing in my curacy) I am most familiar with it. Also its content is the most moving to me of all my icons because it reflects my favorite author’s best little book Listening to the Heartbeat of God (John Philip Newell) – a book to which I return twice or thrice annually.
Maundy Thursday, the start of the Triduum, celebrates the Last Supper. Churches will either celebrate the supper itself or the foot washing associated with it. Since Anglicans are reticent to touch each other, the foot washing is usually just a symbolic event between a small few – a handy shortening of the service, getting people home to watch BBC mysteries like other good Anglicans and anglophile Episcopalians. Pie in the Sky is my current favorite though Rosemary and Thyme is another. And of course Miss Marple who would have been an Evelyn Underhill character had Evelyn been a mystery-writer instead of a mystic-writer. But she was “well-born” to a layer and so mysteries were perhaps beneath her. Plus, she loved retreat houses so nurture won out over nature in her career.
One may assume the fare was light or it would have logically been called the “Last Dinner” and ruined the rhyme scheme of so many snappy hymns. And Anglicans know it was set in Jerusalem and so could not switch it to “Last Tea Party” at the most recent of our regal schisms, current political terminology being an interesting digression. Regardless, the Last Supper has John the beloved disciple laying on and even falling asleep on Jesus’s chest. Setting aside entirely the great discomfort this scene causes to anti-gay Christians nation-wide (a side benefit if ever there was one) the scene is one of great tenderness and that – that alone – is the point of Maundy Thursdsay. Of Easter. Of the entire week. Not sin. Not salvation. Not sheep and goats. Not absolution or penance. Tender love between friends – friends who touch each other.
What if we all left Holy Week filled not only with Hot Cross Buns, Lamb with Mint Sauce and hair smelling of smoke but also with tenderness? And what if male friends could express tenderness without being called “gay?” What if a man and another slightly younger man (for that is part of the anxiety of the story and its related tradition) can touch each other, lay next to each other and be so comfortable as to fall asleep during a large, noisy, weepy meal in a season of horrific fear among the dinner guests? I mean, when have you recently fallen asleep on the chest of a host at a dinner party of 12-30 people who are all holed up in a locked upper room aware that the end is near? Hmm? When I ask?! Ok. Just prior to the Oscars, but when ELSE?
As a man whose senses of tase and smell were stolen five years ago in a terrible accident, I will say that sight, hearing and touch (the three senses I have left) have become much more important to me. Seeing eyes dance as a friend tells a joke. Hearing the silences in Rachmononov’s Vepers.* Touching the curve of a friend’s cheek or her sole or his neck. The feel of sorbet.
Sensuality, though equated with sex in a church which has long equated body and sin, sensuality is so very human and not just the delight of humans but of most sentient beings. Well, not snakes but that is explained in Genesis. What would our theology look like if Augustine had had a few more long hugs? And a therapist.
I love the way my dog’s hips feel when I fall asleep, as I do each night, with my head on them as a pillow. I love the way one friend touches her forehead to mine when she says goodbye. I love the way Jesus’ abdomen looks in a beautiful Johannine crucifix, all long and six-packed and elegantly draped on wood like the curtains in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom.
I wish I did not live in a culture formed by a church which fears sensuality, non-sexual intimacy and tenderness. Sometimes I wonder if the Great Stork dropped me off on the wrong planet. Or at least in the wrong century. It could have been worse I suppose. I could have been dropped down the chimney of a Victorian Lutheran. Small, tender mercies.