The ancient designation of this night is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” A command, an order, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice. So, what is our mandate on this day?
To love one another.
The story of this night includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. But remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when Jesus would be put to death.
This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.
In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”
When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bids farewell to his followers on this earth and gives them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.
But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events. When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” we break bread.
Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the meals of Jesus. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John.
For Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Paschal Lamb of God. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the blood that would demonstrate God’s love.
And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Last Supper, the breaking of the bread is a symbolic display that Jesus body was broken, but it is also a symbol of our brokenness as we have broken ourselves by our unfaithfulness and have been broken by others’.
In John’s gospel, when Jesus washes feet, he is offering an example of a different sort. When he lowers himself, to take on a water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of a servant, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
To obey Jesus’ mandate, his last command, is to empty oneself in love to be filled with the spirit of God in service to each other and our neighbors.
“Love one another as I have loved you!”