“Maundy Thursday.” The first time I heard someone use that that phrase, I thought he was saying “Monday Thursday”—a rather contradictory concept! But “Maundy” is probably an old English corruption of the Latin word for “commandment,” mandatum. If so, then Maundy Thursday is Commandment Thursday. But what does that mean?
All four Gospels record Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the Thursday before he was crucified on the next day. In the first three Gospels, we hear about Jesus instituting the Christian holy meal: the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, if you will. But only in the Gospel of John do we hear about Jesus issuing a mandatum, a commandment.
In John 13:34, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, 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” (NRSV).
Interpreters have long puzzled over why Jesus calls this a new commandment. After all, in chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The newness of Jesus’ command probably lies in the phrase “as I have loved you.” Never before the life and death of Jesus, had the world really known the depth of God’s love for us, and therefore the kind of love that we’re called to exercise toward other people.
It’s entirely fitting that Jesus should issue this command after he had washed his disciples’ feet. Washing feet in Jesus’ day was a task for servants or slaves. It was menial, dirty job. It no doubt shocked the disciples when Jesus stood up, removed his outer robe, donned a towel, and poured water in a tub. Peter was so offended by what he saw his Lord doing that he blurted out, “You will never wash my feet.”
But Christian love—agape, caritas—drives us to bow low, to stoop. To disregard ourselves for the sake of others. To suffer even death if called for by the welfare of the other. A few minutes after giving the new commandment, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). And that, of course, is precisely what Jesus was about to do, to lay down his life for his friends.
Maundy Thursday is all about love, not what passes for love in much of our world, but Christian love, the divine quality of love that Jesus has shown us, and which we, in turn, are obligated (mandatum!) to show to others, above all, other disciples of Jesus.
We will honor Maundy Thursday if we give profound thanks for the love of Jesus and allow his love, his kind of love, to flow from him, through us, to those around us.
-Dr. Barry Blackburn, Professor of Biblical Studies
Lord Jesus, on the holy cross you have revealed your holy love. May your love consume us. Amen.