The Exodus instructions allow us to focus on the meal. Maundy Thursday is an appropriate time to remember where the sacrament of Holy Communion originated and what it represented on that first Last Supper. But you might need to turn to another Gospel—this is Matthew’s year—for help in translating the instructions for Passover into the ritual that we call Communion. There is power in remembering together on this night why we treasure the bite of bread and the sip of juice time after time. There is a deepening of understanding that transcends this reenactment of a sacrificial meal and an offering of self and of presence.
But the name of the day itself, and the John text assigned, diminishes the meal in favor of the teaching. We focus not on the establishment of a ritual, but on the description of a way of living in community and interacting with the world.
I know it is useless to try and ascribe inner thoughts to the actors in the gospel drama, but I can’t help but wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind when he got up and grabbed the towel and the basin. Was it a sigh at how such an important cultural greeting was missed by those who were charged to prepare the meal? Was it a light-bulb moment where he thought, “Maybe if I show them what I mean, they’ll finally get it?” Was it yet another opportunity to present his incarnated message, to be the words that he spoke? Or was it just a matter of course – he saw a need and got up to fill it, not thinking for a moment about how they would respond to such an act?
In the minds of the disciples, there was something demeaning about kneeling to serve in such a humbling way. That’s why they all managed to overlook the opportunity. But for Jesus, it wasn’t demeaning; it was an opportunity. An opportunity to serve. More than that, it was an opportunity to be who he came to be, to fulfill his purpose. After all, he said, “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.”
All the teaching about the action came later, when they were confused. “Do you know what I have done for you?” Nope, he could read it in their eyes; they didn’t get it. They were still looking for the best seats; they were still looking for their rewards in heaven, or on earth. They didn’t know what he had done, which means they didn’t know him. At all. We sometimes envy the disciples, because they got to spend time with him; they got to hear his voice and see his eyes; they watched his hands; they were right there. And they didn’t get it. They didn’t have any advantage.
Later on, Jesus says “I’m giving you a new commandment.” That’s where the word Maundy comes from. The Latin maundatum or command. The new commandment, he says later is “Love one another as I have loved you.” Except it wasn’t new, not really. He had already acted it out in front of them. “As I have loved you.” By serving, by getting on his knees, by bending to a task that even fishermen thought was beneath them. “Love as I loved,” says Jesus.
It wasn’t supposed to be a once-a-year command. The church has turned Maundy Thursday into quite a ritual over the years. The pope would find some beggars - or his people would find some beggars – and then very publicly wash their feet. The monarch of England would do the same until it got too uncomfortable for them; now they hand out some money – “Maundy Money,” it’s called. Once a year.
But it was never supposed to be a ritual. It was supposed to be a way of life. Oh, foot-washing isn’t a part of our culture; that isn’t necessarily what is supposed to be carried on. It is the willingness to serve that is the command. The Maundy. On Thursday, or Monday. Or any day. Sometimes it’s a good day, all you hoped it to be. Other times it seems cruel, not what you expected. That’s a part of the risk of service. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out as you hoped; sometimes it isn’t received as you intended. And our inclination is to stop rather than risk doing it wrong. At least until we remember that each day is a holy day in a holy week and therefore an opportunity to serve, to love in action and in truth not just in words. We remember that Maundy, the commandment to love as we have been loved, comes again and again. That renewal, that second chance, is part of the awesome grace of this event.