A New Commandment
On Maundy Thursday the climax of the Christian year begins. On this day we recall Jesus and his disciples gathered together for the meal which would become known as the last supper. He knows that his life and work on earth are nearly finished, and he prepares them for his departure. This is the day on which Christians remember that Jesus gave us the eucharist, the service of holy communion. It is also the day on which, above all others, we recall that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, an act of service and humility designed to inspire them – and us – to self-giving and acts of love.
In Germany Maundy Thursday is called “Gründonnerstag” – Green Thursday. The “ Gr ün” in that word does not derive from the German for “green”, however, but from “greinen”, which means “to weep”. But it is from the old Latin name for the day, Dies Mandatum – the day of the new commandment – that we get the English name “Maundy Thursday”. In this country the most well-known ceremony of Maundy Thursday is probably the distribution of “Maundy Money” by the monarch to deserving elderly people – one man and woman for each year of the monarch’s age. In the 17th century, and earlier, the King or Queen would follow Jesus’ example and wash the feet of the selected poor people as a gesture of humility. The last monarch to do this was James II (reigned 1685-1688). The ceremony of the monarch giving money to the poor on this day dates back to Edward I (Edward Longshanks, who reigned 1272-1307).
As the name of the day implies, the heart of Maundy Thursday lies in that commandment, given by Jesus at the Last Supper: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another” (John 13. 24). But was this really a new commandment? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. When we realise what this almost too familiar word ‘love’ meant to Jesus, we see how radically new his understanding of love was:
We can see, then, that Jesus’ “new commandment” – to love one another, as I have loved you – was about far more than just being kind to one’s friends. This form of love went far beyond the love that is passion and emotional sensation
( eros ); it was a more profound form of love even than loyalty, comradeship, or the love between brothers and sisters ( philia ).
I referred earlier to the word ‘love’ as being almost too familiar. The word love has been cheapened by overuse and misuse: most people have forgotten that it can mean something far more inspiring than sentimental attachment or physical attraction, that love is a principle for life rather than something which we are ‘in’ or ‘out of’. If, on the contrary, we hold onto the ideal of love as Jesus lived it and taught it, even if we usually fall far short of it, we will begin to play our small part in reversing the world’s current slide into violence and a revenge-driven mentality. If ‘service’ rather than ‘self’ is our main motivating force, then we can resist the enormous pressures in contemporary society to get all we can, spend all we can – regardless of the cost to others and to our own souls.
Loving those whose love for us is weak or non-existent; serving others whatever the cost; being ready to make sacrifices for the sake of love; all these need not involve grand gestures. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “Do little things as though they were great, because of the majesty of Jesus Christ who does them in us, and who lives our life”. We can never know when a small act of love will change the world; but we do know that one brief self-humbling deed on the part of Jesus – when he took the towel and water and stooped at his disciples’ feet – did change the world. A new commandment was not just given, but shown, in time, to millions. A picture and a pattern of love; a path to follow, and a road to blessedness. May the Christ who gave himself so that others might live inspire us too, on this Maundy Thursday, to serve, to give, and to love – as he loved us.