Maudy Thursday, A
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I have a friend who is, to put it mildly, less enamored of things spiritual and things religious than I am. He sat himself down in my chair the other day with a dilemma. His sister hosts an Easter festival of epic proportion every year, complete with dyed eggs and Easter bunnies and peeps and baskets and Easter egg hunts and joyful pastel clad children. Following his own predilection to avoid high holy days whenever possible, my friend had always avoided visiting his sister over this particular celebration. For whatever reason, he opted to participate in the soiree if not the sentiment of the season this year. He planned to arrive at his sister’s house during Holy Week and did not relish the idea of appearing ignorant or poorly informed. Thus the dilemma. Easter, he understood, if not at a visceral level, at least in theory. While Good Friday may be the most difficult day of Holy Week to accept, it is perhaps the day that is easiest to understand. Maundy Thursday, he indicated, was the problem. “I know what a Thursday is. What the heck is a Maundy?”
What is Maundy Thursday, really? It marks the beginning of the holiest time in Christianity, the Triduum, literally, “the three days” – referring to the three days stretching from the last supper through Jesus’s betrayal and death. “The Orthodox describe tonight’s portion of this great liturgy as consisting of four parts: the sacred Washing, the Mystical Supper, the transcendent Prayer, and the Betrayal itself. It begins with intimacy and ends with the betrayal of that same intimacy. Through this liturgy we embody the great beauty, vulnerability and tragedy of Christ’s great act and commandment of love.” (Rev. Anjel Scarborough, Sermons That Work)
The word itself, “Maundy” derives from the Latin “mandatum”, from which we also derive the English word “mandate”. “Mandatum novum do vobis” – A new commandment I give you…
Jesus…is running out of time. Simply running out of time. You know how things are when you are running up against a deadline? First necessary act as the deadline looms is panic, of course, but after the panic… Leonard Bernstein once wrote, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” After the panic and before the deadline, focus becomes very sharp. Things that distract from the goal fade into fuzziness and all energy is focused exclusively on the objective. So it was with Jesus.
He’s running out of time, and knows it. He has spent the last week calling attention upon himself in a manner most unwelcome to the powers-that-be. He raised Lazarus from the dead, which seems nice enough on the surface, but threatens the rank and order of things. He paraded into town in a parody of Roman power. He turned over the money changers’ tables, chasing them away with whips – sending a message no one in power wanted to hear in a not so diplomatic sort of way. He went to the temple, the seat of Jewish power, and tortured its politically powerful denizens with truths they resented, but could not help but recognize. One does not do these things and live long.
Jesus knows He will die, die violently, and die soon. Too late for parables. Too late for sermons. Too late even for miracles. Now is all He has left. All energy pours into the only things that matter. Jean Vanier wrote, “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” Its the ordinary things Jesus offers in those last precious, intimate moments.
He breaks bread and shares wine. He washes away the dust of the world. He gives a gift of wisdom/of love “Mandatum novum do vobis”.
The appointed hour has come. We have escaped the whirlwind of our lives to gather in God’s house together. We are weary. Weary of the dreariness of winer, the discipline of Lent, the tumult of life, the deeply saddening news of anger and violence and normalized hate.
It is tempting in our weariness to rush through to Easter, to bask in the golden light and joy of the resurrection, to anesthetize ourselves with bunnies and baskets and chocolate. If we do that, if we eschew the vulnerability of this night, we become outsiders looking in at Easter. Jesus invited the disciples, invites us into the most intimate of relationships with him. In fact, He demanded that intimacy from those that would follow him, “or you will have no share with me”.
In the quiet of the waning evening we gather to share the things truly important. We come together to minister and be ministered to, to break bread together and share a common cup in remembrance of Him, to allow the dust of the world to be washed from our careworn crevices, to kneel at another’s feet and wash away their sorrows. To love one another. To be loved. Jesus would have us taste, live, digest, celebrate and propagate His love, God’s love, in every dirty little crevice and fold and callous of our lives. As William Brosend at Sewanee wrote, “The saving work of Christ, is not just about the cross. It is about the birth and the baptism, the teaching and the healing, the body and the blood, the basin and the towel, the life, the death”, the love.