Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday


Each spring, one of the toughest endurance races in the world is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Participants attempt to complete a five-lap route—or, as our American cousins pronounce it, rout—which is, in total, between 100 and 130 miles. The exact route changes each year, but roughly one third is on forest trails, the other two-thirds off-trail. The total ascent and descent are equivalent to going from sea-level to the summit of Mount Everest and back. Twice. The five loops must be completed within a strict 60-hour cut-off. And the American pronunciation rout is fitting: each year, 35-40 of the world's best endurance runners take part. To date, since 1989, a total of 20 people have finished (three more than once). If you aren’t a runner, it is possible that you heard of the Barkley Marathons for the first time this year, as British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to finish.

The race is legendary, with its own mythic lore. Jo and I have watched two documentaries on it, and we are in awe. Two things stand out. The first is that it simply isn’t possible to know what it is like to take part in the Barkley Marathons unless you have taken part. Even if you are a seasoned ultramarathon runner. Which I am not. The second is that as participants drop out of the race, they become the most amazing support team for those who remain. No assistance is permitted except in camp, between loops, and there, the most experienced ultra runners in the world are willing one another on. They are on hand with advice, to wash legs shredded by briars, to pierce blisters so the other can carry on.

Both these things speak to me of the Christian life.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, the Church gathers to hear again the old, old story of the Israelites eating a hurried meal before heading out into the wilderness at night, walking pole in hand, in their escape from Egypt (this, too, is mirrored by the Barkley Marathons, where, between loops, runners take on hurried food for energy) and the less old story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

As Jesus moves from disciple to disciple—those who have been with him on the Way—Peter is aghast that his greatest hero might stoop to serve him. But Jesus responds: You don’t understand, don’t perceive what I am doing, in this precise moment; but then [somewhat ambiguously and unhelpfully translated as ‘later’ in some English translations] you will.

What is it that Jesus wants Peter and the others to understand? That they were to delight in one another and prefer one another to themselves. That is to say, when we look out for ourselves, we are alone; but when we look out for one another, we have a tribe on our side. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

And Jesus says, it isn’t possible to know, to perceive, to ‘get’ what it means to love one another through observing others—let alone by reading about it or watching a documentary. You only get to understand this by doing it. Only those who have attempted to run the Barkley Marathons know what the Barkley Marathons are about.

The only way to know what it is to follow Jesus, with others who are following Jesus, is by following Jesus together. Not as an idea or a philosophy, not as head-knowledge. You discover it in your hands and feet, in aching limbs.

I am never going to run 130 miles around the mountainous forests of Tennessee inside 60 hours. I wouldn’t even try. But I have been walking with Jesus for over fifty years, and I have no intention of dropping out now. I have yet to reach the cut-off point. Let’s go again.


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