What does Maundy mean, anyway? Maybe we need Biblical scholars to refresh us on its meaning. Most of them agree that the English word Maundy is derived through Middle English and Old French mandé and from the Latin mandatum, which is origin of the English word “mandate.”
Mandatum is the first word of the phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, which means “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This new commandment recorded in the Gospel of John (13:34) was spoken by Jesus as he explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. But enough of definitions and origins.
Let’s move on to Maundy Thursday’s story.
Good Friday is global, with Christ dying and offering himself for the sins of all of humanity — past, present and future. But the day we know as Maundy Thursday is much more intimate as Jesus gathered with just his disciples on the night before his Passion unfolds. Jesus has gathered his closest friends, those who had given up all to go with him, those fisherfolk who followed him. They are people just like us, followers of Jesus, followers who sometimes disappoint Jesus.
Wouldn’t it be easier to believe that Jesus was unsuspecting of all that was about to happen to him? Could we think of Jesus as a shocked, brave and trusting Jesus who continued to have faith in their loyalty until the bitter end? The truth is, we cannot think of Jesus in that way, for that would be buying into fantasy.
The Gospels simply do not let us hold on to the fantasy. Instead, they tell us of a Jesus who is fully aware of what is inside the hearts of his friends. Jesus knew Judas would betray him and hand him over to the authorities, yet Judas was included in the intimate gathering.
Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. Jesus knew the others would flee, yet he prayed for them and blessed them. And with all of them, he shared a covenant meal — a Passover meal that he transformed into a meal of the “New Covenant in my blood, shed for you”.
I would like to believe that Jesus was not aware of the fickleness and fear and failure that dominated the hearts of his followers, followers like you and me. I would like to know the emotions of the disciples as Jesus washed their feet. Though Peter objected, Jesus washed, humbling himself to serve his disciples. As Jesus performed such an act of love, I wonder if he thought about the betrayals that would break his heart. All of this was a part of their covenant gathering, a feast of love in a modest, unpretentious upper room. Jesus pulled them close in a covenant gathering, around a feast table where they each experienced their own knowing — Judas perhaps knew guilt and Jesus knew betrayal.
Now the covenant gathering reaches us, and we are only fooling ourselves if we think Jesus does not know exactly who we are. Jesus knows us. He knows our hearts and he knows the innermost thoughts we hold inside, the place of our secrets that may well include betrayals.
The shocking and stunning thing is this: knowing all, Jesus invites us to come. Knowing all, Jesus gives us the command, the mandate from which Maundy Thursday derives its name. He commands us to love others, people who are as weak and hopeless as we know ourselves to be. Jesus commands us to love as he has loved us. To love those who are deemed to be “society’s worthless,” but who really are the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. These, the least of these, we must love as God loves us. The commandment of Jesus calls us to love these and, always, to invite them into our intimate gatherings.
Somehow the words of Oscar Romero seem appropriate to guide us through Maundy Thursday.
Do you see how life recovers all of its meaning? And suffering then becomes a communion with Christ, the Christ that suffers, and death is a communion with the death that redeemed the world? Who can feel worthless before this treasure that one finds in Christ, that gives meaning to sickness, to pain, to oppression, to torture, to marginalization?
— Oscar Romero
What we find around the Maundy Thursday table — even this year a virtual table — is that in Christ we do find the treasure “that gives meaning to sickness, to pain, to oppression, to torture, to marginalization.” And for this day, the treasure gives meaning to pandemic fear, to pain, to anxiety, to the loneliness of being isolated.
No words are adequate to comfort you or bring hope to your current circumstance, so I leave you with this prayer recorded on the following video. I pray it will remind you of the comfort that comes only from God.