I didn’t give up listening to the news for Lent, but I have drastically cut down simply for the sake of my mental and emotional health. Instead of listening to news programs, I’ve started listening to podcasts. Podcasts are like radio programs that you listen to on your computer or your smartphone. If you want to try one, there are supposedly more than two million of them out there to choose from.
I like podcasts that tell stories, and I just started listening to one called “Dark House.” It’s hosted by two young women who work for the magazine “House Beautiful.” But, instead of talking about the luxurious homes they usually cover, they explore homes with a dark side. These houses may have been the scene of a terrible crime, or there might be a mystery associated with them. Or, they may be described as haunted.
In the first episode, the hosts interviewed a man named Tok Thompson. Dr. Thompson is a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, with a special interest in folklore. He even teaches a class on ghosts and ghost stories at USC. One of the things he talked about was why people so often report seeing ghosts in places like basements and attics and stairways. This caught my attention because Jesus spent his last evening with his disciples in an upper room. That means that all of the guests at Jesus’ table would have had to climb a set of stairs to get there.
Dr. Thompson explained that people often see ghosts—or think they do—in these places because they are “liminal” places. Liminal places and times are ones that are “in between” somehow. Midnight is a liminal time, because it can either be the beginning or the end of a day. The moment when you are first roused from sleep but aren’t yet entirely awake is a liminal time. Basements and attics are liminal spaces, because they’re part of our houses, but they’re typically set apart from our main living spaces. Stairways are liminal places, because they are neither up nor down. In the language of spirituality, liminal places are often known as “thin places”—places that are in this world but where the dividing line between the earthly and the divine seems more porous, more blurry, more easily crossed.
Have you ever been to a place where you felt you could almost reach out and touch God? A place where heaven felt so close? There are places all over the world that are known as thin places. I even have a book of beautiful photographs of some of them. But, you can encounter thin places—liminal places—anywhere, at any time.
I wonder if the house that the disciples were led to by the man carrying the jug of water might be a liminal place, if we could find it. If we could stand at the foot of the steps that Jesus and the others used as they went to and from the upper room, would it now be a thin place—a liminal place—for us? Standing at the foot of the stairs, in the dust and debris of two thousand years, whose presence might we feel, even if we didn’t actually see any ghosts?
The owner of the house surely went up and down those stairs. Jesus told the disciples it would already be furnished so, like any good host, the homeowner would have wanted to make sure all was in order. I wonder if he knew exactly who his guest was. Was he a disciple himself, thrilled by the prospect that Jesus would be celebrating the Passover under his roof? As we stand at the foot of the stairs, picture him pausing, half-way up, half-way down, before the evening begins, thinking about the man who has captured his heart, and maybe saying a prayer that his house will be an acceptable place for his rabbi—his teacher, his Lord. We can picture him later, pausing half-way up, half-way down, thinking about what happened to Jesus after he left the house.
Jesus had sent Peter and John to prepare the meal. Peter and John were often together as they traveled with Jesus, and they continued in ministry together after Jesus’ ascension. Do you see them together on the stairs, carrying eggs, dates, and bunches of bitter herbs? They carried up salt, of course, and bread, and wine. Can you hear them on the stairs, talking in low voices about what the evening might bring? Jesus had been saying so many dark things about his death, and pressure from the religious authorities was building. As we watch them on the steps, their faces are somber as they go about their appointed tasks.
Now we see Jesus’ guests as they arrive. The other ten apostles lead the way. But there are others, as well, including many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and who supported him in his ministry. Did Jesus’ predictions of his death painted worry and foreboding across their faces? Or, were they just excited to be included—and to have the men doing the housework for a change?
Judas would have been among the ten. Or, maybe he wasn’t with them. Maybe he hung back, and we see him alone on the steps. He’s already made his deal to betray Jesus, and we see a man who doesn’t want to face the others. If we were to see this ghost, perhaps we would feel a sense of dread. We know what soon will happen as a result of his actions. There’s debate about what Judas’ motives were, and maybe his uncertainty shows on his ghostly face. Did he do the right thing? Will this all work out the way he hopes? Or has he set in motion something he will regret?
When did Jesus climb those steps? Did he enter with the nine (or ten) apostles and embrace Peter and John, complimenting them on the work they’ve done, the table they’ve set, the meal they’ve prepared? Maybe we missed him when he arrived, because he was surrounded by the other disciples.
Now the steps are empty. As we stand at the foot of the steps, in this thin place, all we hear are disembodied voices from the upper room. Then, we hear the gentle sounds of pouring water as Jesus washes their feet. Everything becomes quiet as Jesus passes the bread and wine, explaining that, from this time forward, they should see it as his body and blood, given for them. We hear some contentious voices as the apostles argue about which of them is the greatest. We hear gasps when Jesus first announces that someone in that room will betray him, and he tells Peter that Peter will deny Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times that very night.
Now, the steps are once again populated with ghostly figures, this time led by Jesus as he begins to make his way to the Garden of Gethsemane. What do you see on his face, in his steps? Is it a look of calm determination, or are his eyes shadowed with sorrow and, because he is fully human after all, fear?
Dr. Thompson says that the ghosts we see, or think we see, are often related to our moral transgressions. When we feel we have done something wrong, our ghosts force us to face it. The ghosts we see on the steps to the upper room may be confronting us with our own betrayals of Jesus. Seeing Judas and Peter and the others may make our stomachs knot up because, truth be told, we know that we are not so different from them. Our betrayals may not be as dramatic as Judas’, but they are betrayals nonetheless. We may be as likely as Peter to deny Jesus, when push comes to shove. We may run away in fear from the demands of the cross as so many of the disciples did.
But, Dr. Thompson also say that ghosts give us a chance to make things right—to make a change for the better. We may not be able to change the past, but we can change who we will be in the future. As we watch the ghosts on the steps to the upper room, we can take a moment to ponder how we can be more loyal, more faithful, more courageous. As we watch Jesus making his way down the steps, we have a chance to contemplate the gift of his life for ours. We ponder the forgiveness Jesus offered then, to those who betrayed him, abandoned him, and killed him. And we ask for his forgiveness now. And finally, as his steps take him away from the upper room toward the Garden of Gethsemane, we have a chance to recommit ourselves to loving him as he loves us.
Tonight, we’ve imagined the steps to the upper room as a thin place where we can sense the presence of those who ate that final meal with Jesus. But, we don’t need to imagine a thin place for ourselves. We don’t have to travel the world in search of such places. We have our own thin place right here. That place is the Lord’s table. It is a liminal place where, in very earthly bread and wine, the divine presence is made real for us by a true Spirit—the Holy Spirit.
Like liminal places and times, our faith is a liminal faith. We live between the kingdom that has come near to us in Christ and the kingdom which Christ will complete when he comes again. Over the next three days, we will live in the time between Jesus’ steps to the upper room and his steps to the cross, between the night of his betrayal and the morning of his resurrection, between the bad news of Friday and the good news of Sunday. But for now, let us leave the ghosts on the steps to the upper room. Let us direct our own steps toward the Lord’s table, where earth and heaven meet, every time we gather before it. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young