Maundy Thursday. It certainly is a weird word and one whose meaning is still not very clear. That’s what’s so interesting about language: how words are derived, developed, and how they come to be used throughout the ages. I don’t think many churches even use this word anymore.
Here’s the two sentence etymology lesson before we move on to something we might be able to get our heads around. Maundy is likely a derivation from the Latin word mandatum. It’s the first word in the phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos. Translation: A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you. Jesus says this to his friends during their last meal together (John 13:1-35).
Count me odd, but next to memorial services, this was my favorite service in which to participate. It was a wonderful privilege to be invited into a family as a loved one was making their transition from this to the other side of eternity or as they gathered after the unexpected death of a loved one. Most often it was an intimate time of sharing stories and memories with laughter and tears. Then the memorial service was merely bearing witness to and celebrating a precious life. A ritual to help those left behind make sense of the mystery of death and find hope with one another.
That’s how I always saw this service: reflecting on Jesus having an intimate, vulnerable evening with his friends. In hindsight we know how it all fits together.
We get some glimpses into Jesus’ relationships with his friends through the stories in the Bible. If we can unravel the historical-cultural contexts in which these accounts are told, we may glean a bit more. But what I love about truth, is that it transcends all that. Truth resonates with us. We may not be able to eloquently articulate a logical progression of rhetoric, but we know in our knower.
So we come to Jesus’ last night with his friends…except they don’t know that. Sure it’s been a grueling week dealing with the crowds and religious leaders during this week of Passover. But that’s what it was like hanging around Jesus. He said things that made people uncomfortable; he did things that defied the natural order; he was threatening to the established religious order; and he attracted the most unusual consortium of people!
I’m sure the band of twelve were really looking forward to a quiet Passover meal together. They would be sharing in a ritual that they all knew and loved. A ritual that was familiar and re-told the Exodus story of their people; how God put pressure on the Pharaoh to free the ancient Israelites from slavery by bringing ten plagues. If Charlton Heston as Moses rings a bell, you’ve got the right story.
It was to be an intimate dinner after a long week. There were a few odd things that happened, but not enough for anyone to ask many questions. With Jesus, you could be guaranteed for there to be a few odd things.
There wasn’t a servant present who could wash their feet as they entered the house, so Jesus did it. This made them uncomfortable, but what was new? Jesus always had a little twist to make you think:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15)
Once they got through that object lesson of servant-leadership, he starts talking to them about how someone is going to betray him! I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they looked at one another, wondering what the heck is he talking about now! After a bit of non-conclusive discussion and Judas leaving, he starts talking about being with them only a little bit longer, they won’t be able to come with him, and he issues a new imperative:
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. (John 13:34-35)
They start asking questions and don’t get a straight answer…as usual! When Jesus tells Peter that by the end of the night and the rooster crows three times, he will have denied knowing Jesus, they really don’t know what to think. But that’s Jesus!
We get an intimate peek into the last night these friends are spending together. They have no idea what’s ahead, and even if they did, none of it would make sense. So they enjoy their time together, sit at the feet of their mentor, trying to grasp the nuances of what he’s telling them, knowing that they’ll get it later…they always do.