Today we embark on a three-day period known as Triduum or Three Great Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday… the days that lead up to Easter.
The name, Maundy Thursday, comes from the Latin of the anthem that was part of this day’s liturgy in ancient times: Mandatum novum do vobis. It is from the Gospel according to John; “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…” The Latin word for commandment is mandatum. Perhaps in ancient times this was known as ”the Thursday when we sing Mandatum Novum… “
Mandatum, over time and with the gentle erosion of linguistic evolution, becomes “Maundy” and Mandatum is now generally taken to refer to the washing of the feet; the new commandment seems almost like an afterthought.
But… I want us to hear about it loud and clear…
Jesus says to the Disciples: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the [the crowd], so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment (mandatum novum do vobis), 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.”
A few striking things:
This is not an entirely new commandment… It’s not the first time Jesus has talked about love. We recall when Jesus is asked “what is the greatest commandment?” he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength;” and that you “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is really a paraphrase of the ancient temple creed found in Deuteronomy. Shema Yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. […] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
God commands the faithful to take this command to heart, to teach it to the children, to recite it at home and when travelling, when you go to bed and when you arise…
You’ll notice that Shema Yisrael does not contain the second part: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus has slipped something in from a different part of scripture… from Leviticus, of all places…
We tend to understand this as two great commandments, one – love the Lord your God; and the second is, as King James says, like unto it… Love your neighbor as yourself. But they really are one commandment.
We cannot love God unless we love our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we love ourselves. We cannot love God, who we cannot see, unless we love ourselves and our neighbors who we can see. My human mind wants to protest that sometimes it is much easier to love something you cannot see…
At this meal, when Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus gives a new commandment, a new mandate. Jesus goes a step further from the ancient commands from scripture. Jesus tells us that we are now called to love as God loves. That is the new commandment, the new mandate.
We are not just called to worship and love God, but to act in a Godly way. If we want to follow Jesus, then this is what we must do. We must love as God loves. Nothing less.
In case we have doubt about how big a deal this is, Jesus amplifies that everyone will know us by our love… This is our identity… our essence… God is love and so love is the thing that defines us as Godly.
In the history of the Christian church, we have not always been known by or for our love. We as a tradition, as a people, as individuals… We have often fallen short of the mark… sometimes shockingly short. The Crusades in the Middle Ages are a glaring example. The Doctrine of Manifest Destiny where Americans concluded that God wanted us to take all of the continent from the natives, mostly accomplished by slaughter – we heard God call us to do this. But of course, it was not God… God does not make such calls. And closer to home, we can’t forget Apartheid and the place that parts of the Church had in that. Still today, lots of folks who claim to be preaching the Gospel of Jesus, the Gospel of God’s boundless love use language this is remarkably hate-filled.
We will be known as followers of Jesus by the love we show. This phrase turns around in a fascinating way: “If we don’t love one another, then we cannot be followers of Jesus… not disciples… not Christians. Fortunately, God does not demand that we be perfect. All God asks is that we work in this direction.
There is an interesting nuance between “commandment” and “mandatum” or “mandate” – and it’s a nuance that pops up in English, not in the original language.
Command is a rather broad word – it refers to a system of control. Beyond that, it can mean that we must do something, or that we must not do something. A command can demand or forbid.
Mandate, in modern usage, has come to mean specifically something that we must do. Mandate is a positive word – much more specific than command. A mandate is a requirement to act, unlike command, which is neither positive nor negative.
Today, Maundy Thursday, is just the first of the Pascal Triduum days. I suggest that we look at these three days through a few different lenses: our personal perspective, what it may look like from Jesus’ perspective, and what it may look like from God’s perspective.
We could also consider what it might look like from the disciple’s perspective – the difference between the disciples and us is two thousand years of history… But I’m going to suggest that we not spend too much time trying to imagine their perspective. We cannot pretend that we don’t know what we know, nor do I think there is any great value in that. Jesus is alive today… part of our daily lives. The original disciples are not. We live in a world where information travels at the speed of light while in their world, information could travel about as fast as an animal could run. We live in a very different world and the question is how we will live this mandate in our world.
Knowing what we know, what does it look and feel like to have Jesus looking at us and saying: “I give you a new commandment, love one another”? What does Jesus see, looking at us? And even more broad and vague, what might God see? Where do we imagine God is even watching from?
So, we have a mandate… not the memory of a mandate, or the re-enactment of a mandate, or a reflection on someone else’s mandate… We have a new commandment. What are we going to do about it?
The scars of our failure to love are all around. The ugly scars of our inability to see all people as God’s children are everywhere. The way we, as a society, treat people of different races, of different religions, of different sexual orientations, of different gender expressions, cannot be missed. The way we allow some people to possess wealth beyond comprehension, while others go without enough to eat, without safe drinking water, without the most basic things needed for life, cries out before God.
If we consider, on this Maundy Thursday of Easter Week in 2023, how we are doing with that new mandate, I don’t think we could hear “good job” coming from anywhere. Rather, I think we would hear something like “what are you doing in my name?” Or perhaps harsher words.
We know that Peter, the rock on which the church is meant to be built, is about to deny even knowing Jesus – not once, but three times… Every time we fail to show love, we, too, deny that we know Jesus. It’s a cause for sorrow. It’s a cause for repentance. But it is not a cause for despair.
Because the good news is that Peter is the rock on which the church is constructed – and not only Peter. We are all that rock. We are all recipients of God’s love, of God’s grace. Our sins are forgiven. And we have this new mandate – to love as God loves.
This is, more or less, Jesus’ last request as he is on his journey to the cross. The foot washing is a beautiful gesture and sign of humility. The last supper, the pattern of our Eucharist, is a beautiful and enduring moment of intimacy with Jesus. Ultimately, they tell us of God’s love. There is no greater love than this, that we are willing to lay down our own lives for the life of another. This is what Jesus is doing – and not just for any old person, but for us… for all of us. For all of humanity.
How can we do anything but respond in God’s love.