Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance.
The word “Maundy” does not have any meaning in and of itself. It is one of those exotic Episcopal or Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our church. Scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – “commandment” – which appears in an ancient antiphon assigned for this day: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
This antiphon, taken of course from today’s gospel account, is an apt summary of what this day is about. And Jesus’ commandment to love is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time. The command to love is, after all, always new – as is love itself. And the lesson of this day, Maundy Thursday, applies equally well to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come. It is a lesson or mandate we, as followers of Christ, dare not forget.
Many Episcopalians today remember Maundy Thursday as the day when clergy and parishioners wash one another’s feet at church, recalling the ritual recounted in today’s gospel narrative when our Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a powerful example of love and servanthood. While contemporary Christians may be a bit squeamish about the rite, their discomfort is nothing compared to that of Peter and perhaps the other disciples as well. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter protests to Jesus.
Masters after all – as Peter well knows – most emphatically do not wash the feet of their disciples. It simply is not done. Yet Jesus surely does it. And eventually even Peter catches on, proclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He has learned, in his own larger-than-life way, the lesson of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment of love.
After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus returns to table and quietly asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He answers his own question. “I have set you an example,” he explains. It is an example of profound respect and caring for the other. And what he does for his disciples, he does for us too. He sets us an example. He shows us how things are to be done among his followers even to this day.
An example is always transformative. It commands our attention and changes us whether we want it to or not. We cannot witness another’s example of compassion and love without ourselves being challenged and changed by it. Our Lord does more than wipe the dust from his disciples’ feet. He alters their perception and awareness of human reality itself. He makes them conscious of others and their needs in a new way, which goes far beyond practical hospitality and kindliness.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
We, along with the disciples, can now no longer be unaware or ignorant of the unmistakable mandate given us to “love one another.” We cannot say we did not understand. We cannot say: If Jesus had only been a little clearer. Our actions – to the extent that they do not conform to Jesus’ example – betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words alone but by the example of our own deeds.
Jesus gives us another “new” commandment that last night with his disciples before the cross, although it is oddly missing from the Gospel of John. Paul tells us about it in our second reading – a passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians. In what is arguably the earliest extant retelling of the Last Supper story, Paul hands on to us what he himself “received from the Lord.” After offering the disciples the bread and wine transformed to his body and blood, Jesus tells them to “do this in remembrance of me.”
He commands them, in other words, to remember.
The ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer echo our Lord’s words. “Take and eat,” declares priest or Eucharistic minister in our Rite One service, “in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection – the provisions that remind us of Christ’s example and commandment. And Christ’s death on the cross, remembered and experienced in the Eucharist, gives us a share in the life to come – where he has gone but we cannot yet come.
But if, in the meantime, we feed only ourselves, we will never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more and, ironically, starve to death in the midst of spiritual plenty. This is what the Lord’s example has done to us. The Eucharist itself demands of us not only that we remember, but also that we share and serve.
God does not forget us, his people. As we recall this Maundy Thursday what Christ has done for us, so too the Lord “remembers” forward the kingdom to come – and our heritage in it.
And in that kingdom, the Eucharistic meal we share this day is not the Last Supper but the First.