At our Maundy Thursday service, the passion narrative was read from the Gospel of John. As the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion was read aloud, candles were gradually extinguished, plunging the congregation into total darkness.
This year the worship service coincided perfectly with sunset, and so the light coming through the high windows dimmed as the light in the church dimmed. The darkness was broken at the end of the service by relighting a single candle, representing Christ’s resurrection.
It is one of my favorite services of the year. It is also one of the few worship services where I do not have to preach. The whole service is scripture and music. Therefore I was open to hear the biblical story without having my mind preoccupied with what I was going to preach.
I did not follow along in my Bible as I often do when scripture is read. I simply listened to the story. Two passages collided with each other in my heart: Christ’s confession in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the counterpoint of Peter’s denial in the courtyard.
The authorities came to the garden to arrest Jesus. They asked for him by name, and he responded, “I am he.” This is where it is good to have studied Greek. I have read this passage in the original language, and I know that literally Jesus says simply, “I am.”
Jesus is making reference to the name of God given to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus. It is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus is “I AM.” Jesus was asserting his identity with the Divine, which is why those who came to arrest him recoiled at his words.
Later in the courtyard of the High Priest, the disciple Peter is asked if he is a follower of Jesus. He responds, “I am not.” It was the contrast of these two different responses that struck me so powerfully during that candlelight communion service.
Being versus Non-being. They are both here. Christ is “I am.” In Christ I share his Being. My existence is the extension of God’s Being. I exist only by the grace of God. I have no independent existence apart from God. “I AM” is the core of my essential nature in Christ.
But the void of Non-being lurks in the shadows. With Peter we think “I am not.” This is the daily experience of most people. Most humans are lost in non-being. They do not live in the Beingness of God but in the denial of their essential nature as human “beings.” To use the language of the story, we deny Christ and thereby deny our relationship to God.
“To be or not to be,” questioned Hamlet. Christ made one choice, and Peter made the other. Ultimately it is not really a choice. It is acknowledging what is true, or a denial of it. Jesus said, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Art is “To Be Or Not To Be” by Chris Kontogeorgos