This is a day focused on liturgy: very basic and profound liturgical actions are recalled and acted out. Any liturgy has at its heart a sacrificial action. We offer something, and God takes that offering and does something wonderful with it, something we cannot do for ourselves.
In the Exodus reading for today, the focus is on the first Passover, a deliverance from the tenth plague – a horrible plague that killed the first-born males in every household, except those who lived where the blood of a lamb had been spread upon the lintels of the household door. That was followed by the actual deliverance of the people from bondage in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. This sacred text is read at every Passover feast in a liturgical setting as a profound reminder of a how a liberating and loving God delivers us from bondage, and even death itself.
The reading from Corinthians sets forth the form of the Eucharist, and reminds us all that bread and wine, offered along with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” as it says in the Holy Eucharist, Rite One, are taken by God, made holy and received by us as the body and blood of Christ, a liturgical born-again experience that transforms us over and over into more of what God desires us to be.
The gospel reading from John focuses on another ancient liturgical rite, that of foot washing. Awkward for some, even distasteful, this solemn act included in the Maundy Thursday liturgy causes us to bow the knees of our hearts. As we slowly and solemnly wash one another’s feet, one cannot help but feel the sense of humility accompanied by the ancient tradition – a humility that is not intended to shame, but to assure us that God loves us so much that the Son of God stoops to wash our feet, turning all our concepts of higher and lower, above and below, inequality and equity, into a new reality of love and affection. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
There is something about this sacred day that sets it apart – something deeply transforming. We’re not merely remembering the night before Jesus died, we are actually living it through liturgy. The flash of insight as we are connected with the Passover of our Jewish sisters and brothers, the solemn washing of the feet, the taking of the bread and the cup, these experiences leave us with a depth of meaning that goes beyond words, as all good liturgy does. The readings and liturgy work in harmony to bring us to that last night. Then, as the altar is stripped and prepared for Good Friday, we transition from the most intimate liturgical moment to the absence of God. What can we do but leave silently and go to our homes?
As we leave our places of worship, the words of Jesus remain in our hearts: “Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What we have just done is act out the boundaries of that new commandment – boundaries that expand rather than restrict our vision: perhaps we have washed the feet of someone with whom we have had a disagreement, or a person who is an ex-con trying to work out a new life after prison; perhaps we have sat and watched an older person wash the feet of a teenager. These are only glimpses of what that love looks like. The living out of this loving one another as I have loved you comes through a community of believers that sets aside its own agenda to help others, that allows its buildings to be used by people who need a safe place to meet, a community that practices radical hospitality to strangers, aliens, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and those who have no helper.
Maundy Thursday gives us liberation, freedom, and grace to become a new community, not one centered merely on liturgy that remembers, but one centered on liturgy that leads us to act. If we see Christ crucified and risen from the dead, then our lives are transformed forever. If we believe Christ offers himself on the cross as the ultimate act of love, then we can see ourselves as called to act on behalf of others.
So, renewed by this profound night of liturgy, and transformed by Jesus’ taking upon himself the passion of his love for us, there is nothing to do but leave behind the things that bind us: fear of the unknown, distrust of those unlike ourselves, wariness of others who will come to us, and our own feelings of inadequacy. When we are called by the new commandment, we are given the liberation from those fears and the strength to respond. Whatever we do because of this day will transform someone’s life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love one another takes us one step closer to the redemption of the world. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and broken.