Today is the day in the Church year that wins the prize for the most peculiar name. Generation by generation, we ask, “What on earth is a ‘maundy’?”
If you were too embarrassed to ask, I’ll tell you: It is from a Latin word meaning “commandment.” It is like our English word “mandate.” This is “Commandment Thursday.”
On the Thursday of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, he gathered with his friends and followers in a borrowed room to celebrate the Passover — the annual Jewish celebration of how God delivered the ancient people of Israel from their four centuries of slavery in Egypt. That, in itself, is a big deal. Jesus marks his affirmation of that great act of God to save his chosen and oppressed people. Maundy Thursday reminds us that our God is the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Leah, and Rachel, and Bilhah, and Zilpah.
Early on, Christians took to calling Easter the Christian “Pascha” or “Passover.”
On that particular Passover, on that Thursday of what we call Holy Week, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul tell us that Jesus reinterpreted the ancient feast. He took bread and broke it, he took the cup and shared it, saying “this is my body… this is my blood of the new covenant.” Jesus gave us the feast that we share in traditional Maundy Thursday services to teach us that he is bringing us a new deliverance from slavery and death.
And yet the Church names this day for something else.
Maundy Thursday is named for something only the Gospel of John records; something that so impressed John that he completely omitted the Lord’s Supper from his Gospel.
For John, this was the night when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. And a remarkable commandment it was in John 13, illustrated by Jesus’ own remarkable action.
Love one another” says Jesus.
If he had stopped there it would just be the same old commandment. They knew they were to love each other — “Love your neighbor as yourself” was old news; hard to do, but very familiar.
Love one another,” says Jesus “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”
Well that, as they say, is a horse of a different color.
Now we have to ask
Just how did Jesus love them?”
He hasn’t gone to the cross for them yet. That’s a relief. But lest we probe too far looking for the answer, Jesus points out that he has just shown them precisely what he means by this commandment.
Jesus washed their feet. They are to wash one another’s feet.
Jesus took the role of a servant and did a lowly job for them. They are to be servants to one another.
Jesus saw something deeply practical that they needed to have done, and he did it. They are to attend to one another’s practical needs.
Jesus came near, into their physical personal space. He cared for them in an intimate way. They are called to that kind of love too.
It strikes me that people who care for our bodies’ intimate needs fall into one of two categories — and both are relevant to Jesus’ love.
Like a physician.
Sometimes we allow others to touch and care for us in a dispassionate professional way — physicians, haircutters, shoe shiners. We often put them at a distance emotionally to be able to allow them into our physical space. Jesus was willing to lay aside his identity as the God of the universe and take that distancing role of a servant.
Like a member of the family.
Then other times we allow others to care for us physically, to serve us in the needs of our bodies, because they know us best, and most tenderly, and most intimately. The physical caring of a parent for a little child. The physical caring of an adult child for an aging parent. The mutual physical care given by those bound in marriage.
When Jesus steps close, holds the feet of his friends, bathes them and gently dries them, he shows us how he loves us.
Jesus commands us to love each other as he loved us that day. That’s the “maundy” of Maundy Thursday.
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