On donuts and holes for Maundy Thursday
My sister Kathy was a fantastic cook. She was not a fancy cook – no pretentious things with French-sounding names could be found on her menu, no trendy vegetable artfully placed next to an escalope which is not much bigger than a nickel. (“Kale?!?,” I can almost hear her ask, almost see her furrowed brow, “Haven't we got a second cousin named Kale?”) And she always had a plethora of the most obscure things on hand – they could always be found in her untidy, overflowing cupboards. “Pooh Bear,” she would say to me, “grab the marshmallow cream, butterscotch chips and Karo corn syrup out of the cabinet.” To someone like me who – on a good day – would be lucky to find flour and eggs in his kitchen, the fact that Kathy had these things just lying around always filled me with both admiration and awe.
One of the things she always made for me was donuts. Before you start thinking, “O, that sounds rather complicated” don't; the donuts only had four ingredients: Pillsbury biscuit dough, sugar, cinnamon, and enough vegetable oil to make the Exxon Valdez's contents seem like a little girl's tea party. (Now I must explain here that when I say “biscuits” I don't mean sweet cookies, but rather biscuits in the American sense – savoury bread rolls.) Anyway, with music almost exclusively from the 50s thorough the 80s as our soundtrack, I would sit drinking black coffee (Kathy never drank the stuff herself, but always had some on hand for others) and she and I would chat while she got to work. She would hit the biscuit dough container against the counter with a giant thud (usually accompanying conversation about a family member who had vexed her) and, dough burst out of its confines, she would then cut it into discs. In the centre of each dough-disc, she would then cut a perfect hole using the cap of the vegetable oil bottle. Oil sizzling in her ever-present electric skillet (God only knows how many she wore out in her lifetime) she would then fry the donuts and holes to a golden brown, removing them directly from the oil into a waiting bowl filled with just the right mix of cinnamon and sugar, which would cling to the donuts and holes like sweet and needy lovers. They would then be removed from the bowl and placed on a plate with kitchen roll underneath it, presumably to sop up any excess oil, in what I can only think was the most cursory of nods to making them somehow less decadent.
But the story doesn't end there. No, because in my sister's home where – really – there were very few rules, there was one rule that was non-negotiable: no one was allowed to eat just the holes. If you wanted to have the hole – unanimously considered the best part – you had to eat the accompanying donut. And – though I frequently broke this rule when no one was looking, blaming my poor innocent nephew and nieces for the visible donut-to-hole disparity – even I (clearly my sister's favourite) was not exempt.
Why were the holes so desired? I mean, they were made of the same ingredients as the donuts themselves, fried up in the same oil. There was absolutely no difference in taste. Was it the ease of just being able to pop it in your mouth in one bite? Was is that every single millimetre was covered in cinnamon and sugar, whilst when one took a bite of the donut there would naturally then be a part exposed with just plain dough? Could be.
But probably about seven years ago or so, discussing this very issue, I told Kathy that we needed to come up with a philosophical or theological explanation as to why the holes were more desired than the donuts themselves. “That's your department,” she said to me, but then quickly said, “Wait!”, big brown eyes animated by revelation. “Maybe we all want the holes because they complete what's missing. We need that inside of us.”
“Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant,” I replied, not just a little piqued that I hadn't thought of it myself.
“Will you write about it some day?” she asked, fishing more donuts and holes out of the oil.
“Absolutely,” I said.
We didn't talk for a few minutes afterwards, the sizzling of the oil and a song from the 70s named Billy Don't Be a Hero providing the background. Revelation takes some time to digest, and it's best not to talk when that's happening. The moment passed, and we began talking again “Remember when ...” The stories continued.
Kathy turned around to put more dough in the skillet, and I nicked a donut hole while her back was turned. I tasted it, felt its warmth on my tongue, and knew that I was in the presence of something powerful and significant. That connection, those stories, that love: they were all a part of me. And, if at times there would be emptiness, there would also be that awareness that it was possible to complete what was missing, to have that inside of me. I could do none other but to thank God for it all: that connection, those stories, that love, and even that missing piece; because in my need to have that filled, I somehow found strength beyond all telling.
We gather this evening keenly aware of what is missing. Missing is the ability of some who would breathe in the wonder of spring with expanded lungs, who instead struggle to draw breath as a ruthless virus holds sway. Missing is the comfort of family and friends, of gatherings and touch. Missing is the pleasure of mundane convenience. Missing is the freedom to move about as we would like. And though – it must be said – so many of the things that we are missing are not present in the lives of countless people across the globe even in the so-called normal times, it does not take away from our own sense of what's missing. On the contrary, it adds to it and – to try to find a good thing about all of this – perhaps makes us understand others better.
And for Christians this evening, missing, too is a full participation in the ancient rituals which are at the heart of who we are. Our churches now serve as monuments to emptiness. And yes, we all know that the Church is the people, and yes, that in the early church we gathered in homes and yes, that God is present everywhere but to those who would seemingly crow about what wondrous opportunities exist for us now that we're not shackled to buildings, can you just be quiet for a second and hear those of us for whom not even being able to go into our churches for private prayer is an extreme, extreme sadness? Can you just hear us for a second, tune your ears to the cries of those of us for whom this particular emptiness is devastating? Tonight I really don't want you to preach to me about perspective and evangelical opportunity, I want you to try to understand the emptiness me and people like me are feeling. As I said just a couple of minutes ago: Revelation takes some time to digest, and it's best not to talk when that's happening.
But here we are – you in your homes and me in mine, talking to an iPhone propped up on top of books on top of a piano bench that is itself on top of a bed. Celebrating a ceremony in which I will wash no feet and you will not directly receive of the bread and the cup I offer for us all.
But, that which is missing duly acknowledged, the extraordinary thing is that what we celebrate this evening is a vibrant, ritual testimony to the unique power of Jesus Christ to fill the emptiness. He who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; he who who emptied himself of a need to be lauded and washed feet; he who emptied himself of the tendency to divide by becoming unity itself enfleshed; he who emptied himself of life itself so that we may be filled with life for ever. In our connection, in our story, in this love, and even in the missing piece, we gather – not as we would wish but nonetheless as we must – to thank God for it all: that connection, those stories, this love, and even that missing piece; because in our need to have that filled, we somehow find strength beyond all telling. I believe that.
There is grace in this holy evening. There is power in emptiness.
What kind of power is there in emptiness, you may ask? Well – spoiler alert – we'll hear all about it Sunday morning.