[A Maundy Thursday reflection written for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15.]
As I stared out the backseat window of my family’s old Plymouth Voyager, watching the highway wind its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes felt as if these trips to my grandparents’ house were an adventure in time travel. For a Pokémon-obsessed, Nickelodeon-watching, Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid, my grandparents’ Mennonite community, nestled quaintly in the Shenandoah Valley, was something of a culture shock to say the least. Weekends like these meant playing checkers rather than Nintendo, singing hymns around the piano rather than cranking up the volume on my Walkman, and enjoying Sunday supper compliments of Granddad’s garden rather than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But even as I dreaded the slower pace and the “old-fashioned fun” my parents always promised, I inevitably found that the values of simplicity and hospitality struck a chord with me even as a youngster. No place was this clearer for me than my grandparents’ kitchen table. I never knew how she did it, but no matter what she was cooking or who came vistin’, Grandma always managed to have room for one more. She’d welcome you in with a smile and a glass of sweet tea, quickly setting another place without so much as a sigh or a raised eyebrow. After a long car ride, we knew we’d always be greeted with her specialty: meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. It was a meal my great-grandmother would often make for her guests — beloved recipes passed down from generation to generation, a family’s story recorded in flour and egg, potato peels and pie crust.
I like to think that Jesus was doing something akin to this when he gathered with his disciples on the night before his arrest. Sitting around a table, he shared not just any meal with them, but a recipe with deep roots – one that connected them to their family history through the foundational story of the Passover feast and the liberation of God’s chosen people. Stooping down to wash their feet, he extended radical hospitality, and in doing so, opened their eyes to a wholly unexpected though profoundly sacred way of living in the world. Christ knew that they would need these gifts to sustain them through the days ahead. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world” and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Out of this great love, Christ offers them bread for the journey and a ritual of remembrance to nourish their grieving hearts. He tells them that these gifts of bread, water, and wine are not just for them, but for those who come after them, the community of saints whom this ancient yet ongoing story has claimed as its own. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” he tells them. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Reflecting on this ritual, this feast passed down through the Church in every age, Paul also writes, “For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). In other words, this holy meal, this undeserved hospitality, these final moments with Christ’s most intimate companions, they’re part of us, part of our Christian story, part of what holds us all together and reminds us who we are. This, Christ tells us, is the recipe which nourished our past and sustains our future.
These days my grandparents’ home looks a little different. Years ago they traded in their ranch and its mountain view for a spot in a senior care facility. As Grandma’s multiple sclerosis progressed, standing at the kitchen counter started to become too much, and Granddad, likewise, found that the ache in his back and the shuffle in his steps began to overshadow even the joy-filled perfection of biting into one of his homegrown tomatoes. Each of these little losses felt like a crack in the foundation of our family and an assurance that things will never be as they once were. And yet, as I stand in my own tiny kitchen, in a fast-paced city far from the silent gaze of those mountains which hold such deep history, I don’t have to pull out my cookbook. Four generations later, these recipes are etched indelibly on my heart. As it turns out, grief, seasoned with teardrops and paired with sides of ritual, legacy, and nostalgia, tastes a whole lot like meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. But then again, at least I know what to take with me when I go to visit next time.