At the beginning of the Second World War, Norman Rockwell created a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post called “The Four Freedoms.” Three of the original four images are no longer particularly recognizable, but one has stood the test of time. Though originally created to support the American war effort, the illustration called “Freedom from Want” has transcended its original purpose and has become an idealized image of American family life. The illustration depicts a smiling family gathered at a Thanksgiving table and filled with gleeful anticipation as the matriarch sets an absurdly large turkey at the head of the table. Everyone seems to be happy and there is no evidence of any animosity among the people seated at the table. Anyone who has ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family, however, knows that Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of that meal is far from accurate. When families get together, the dynamics can be downright destructive. Family gatherings can be filled with petty jealousies, old grudges, remembered betrayals, and heartbreak. They can make us wish that we were part of a different family, yet the vast majority of us eventually embrace the fact that we are irrevocably connected to our families. Our family meals become reminders that our connection to one another transcends all of the jealousies, grudges, and betrayals that break our hearts.
Tonight Christians around the world will observe Maundy Thursday. It is the night that we remember the example of Jesus’ humility by washing each other’s feet. It is the night when we recall and celebrate the institution of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus surrendered himself into the bread and wine before he was handed over. It is the night that we prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death. Towards the conclusion of tonight’s service, we will hear this prayer:
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The implications of this prayer are profound. Remember that Jesus’ own disciples run away when he is arrested and brought before the authorities. It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who denies ever knowing him. It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who hands him over to death. These were the people who were closest to Jesus, those who could be considered his family, and yet they betrayed him, handed him over to sinners, and allowed him to suffer death upon the cross. The extraordinary thing is that they remained his family, that Jesus was willing to experience their betrayal, and offered them a forgiving love that passes understanding.
As we participate in the Eucharist this evening, we will participate in a family meal. It is not the idealized gathering portrayed by Norman Rockwell, but a gathering of sinners, betrayers, and deniers. It is a gathering of people who harbor petty jealousies and cling to old grudges. It is a gathering that would break God’s heart. And yet, we affirm that we are still a part of God’s family, that we are still irrevocably connected to a God who was willing to be betrayed for the sake of those who betrayed him.