The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of the Latin mandatum novum, the 'new commandment' to 'love one another' that Jesus gives his disciples in the Gospel passage assigned for this day. The tradition of foot washing that usually takes place in the course of the liturgy is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, as well as a commemoration of what happened in the Upper Room. To call this a 'third' commandment, as Jesus does, is immediately to rank it alongside, and equal to, the two 'great' commandments that elsewhere he identifies as central to faith -- love of God and love of neighbour. With this third commandment, Christians are invited (instructed, actually) to regard their fellow Christians in a special light, and to exhibit towards them a Christ-like love.
Unhappily, the history of the Church is littered with episodes and occasions when precisely the opposite appears to have been the case. The Roman theologian and Church Father Tertullian famously imagined pagans saying -- with awe and admiration -- 'See how these Christians love one another'. In later centuries, the critics of Christianity used that very same phrase ironically, as they witnessed the ferocity of the battles between Catholics and Protestants.
Nowadays Christians are far more often the victims than the perpetrators of religious violence, and very rarely persecute or penalize other followers of Christ. Even so, despite many ecumenical initiatives, divisions remain, and uncharitable attitudes to other Christians persist. So Maundy Thursday presents an opportunity both to acknowledge the gross errors of the past, lament the continuing failure to manifest true unity, and affirm again that Jesus gave us THREE great commandments.
Important though this is, the main focus on Maundy Thursday is the gift of the Eucharist. That is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack, reflected in the fact that the liturgical colour is neither violet as in Lent, nor red as in Passiontide, but white as at Christmas and Easter. Yet, the Gospel passage set for today omits the twelve verses that expressly refer to the Passover meal Jesus and his disciples shared. This may be because the omitted verses are focussed on Judas's betrayal and tell us nothing about the institution of the Eucharist. This gap is filled by the other two readings, however. The Old Testament lesson is from Exodus, and recounts the instructions Moses received for the preparation of the original Passover meal, to be eaten in haste as the Israelites prepared to flee slavery in Egypt. The Epistle is Paul's instruction (or reminder) to recent converts at Corinth of Christ's institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. Sheer familiarity often leads us to overlook a truly remarkable fact. These few words have been repeated by faithful Christians for over twenty centuries, millions upon millions of times. This in itself indicates the depth of meaning that has been found within them, and the juxtaposition of these two passages reveals what that meaning is. As John's Gospel elsewhere emphasizes, Jesus is the paschal lamb now made manifest in a wholly new way, and the bringer of freedom from slavery to sin and self-centredness.
Of course, for the reality of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God to be fulfilled, we must wait for Good Friday.
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