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Maundy Thursday – great feast of love for the world
A new commandment
“Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” - Jesus in John 13.34
This day is the great feast of love and peace. Jesus showed his disciples the true meaning of love when he washed their feet when they were all together to celebrate the Passover. “...he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13: 4 – 5).
To me this great feast is the most moving in the whole liturgical year. Last night I celebrated it with the community of Corpus Christi (very appropriately, I think!), a Parish in the Pretoria Diocese of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. I took the accompanying photos with the kind permission of the Deacon, the Reverend Dr Stephen Verryn.
This is the day on which we celebrate four things: the new commandment of love, the meaning of servant leadership, the institution of the mystical meal and the Agony in the Garden which is the preparation for the dramatic events of Good Friday. But of course these all look forward in hope to the Resurrection.
How Can I Keep from Singing?
Somehow the words that kept going through my mind, along with the great commandment of love, were those of the wonderful Shaker song “How Can I Keep from Singing?” - “My life flows on in endless song.”
I suppose this is because the “mandatum novum”, the New Commandment, the extension of the very human attribute of love beyond the borders of family, of race, of creed, of nation, is the challenging beginning of a new creation in which the world and its peoples can live in peace, freed from hunger, war, disease and disrespect.
It is a signpost to a way of life that, even though the “tempest round me roars”, shines “above earth's lamentation.” No doubt there are many for whom that signpost is the cross, but for many others it will be different symbols, all pointing to the “new creation” which gives people the strength to carry on in spite of the efforts of the tyrants to deny their humanity.
Because the Great Commandment means that we no longer ask who people are, what their political, religious or racial affiliations are, but simply what their need is. As the wonderful poet and songwriter Sydney Carter wrote:
“When I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour were you there?
And the creed and the colour and the name won't matter,
Were you there?”
I am among you as one who serves
The great commandment of love is made real and practical by Jesus's example of washing the feet of his disciples. This is the way the “New Creation” will come about, by people taking on the humility to serve others, especially those who are outside, other than ourselves.
The Great Commandment is not a pie-in-the-sky, airy-fairy kind of thing. It demands that we get our hands dirty in the messy business of humanity, showing care to murderers, prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, paedophiles, suicide bombers.
Jesus washed the feet of all his disciples, including the one who was about to betray him. He didn't ask if the disciple was “worthy” to have his feet washed. Indeed he specifically rebuked the headstrong and impulsive Peter for raising that very issue: “If I do not wash you, you can have no part with me.”
Jesus made servant leadership very clear: “If I your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also must wash one another's feet. I have just given you an example that as I have done, you also may do.”
In Luke's account of the Last Supper, when some of the disciples started to argue about who among them was the greatest (what a human thing to do!) Jesus made it very clear that servanthood is the greatest value: “For who is the greatest, he who sits at the table or he who serves? He who is seated. Yet I am among you as one who serves.”
Fr Dan, the celebrant, spoke of this humility, this readiness to serve, as being a key attribute of priesthood.
The Mystical Meal
Sharing a meal, sharing bread and wine, are such wonderfully human things to do. We celebrate our love and caring among ourselves and have fun with lots of chatter and laughter. Jesus, though, challenged us to think about the meaning of this eating and drinking – is it just about having fun, about convivial company?
I think Jesus, by saying, “This is my body, this is my blood”, challenges us to think about bread and wine in new ways, about our own bodies and our blood; in other words, about who we are and what we are about. He was like a Zen master, encouraging his followers to look into themselves, to become aware of the moment, of all that is happening in that moment: “The kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus was teaching us that we don't have to go somewhere special to be holy, we don't have to do anything different from what we do every day – we have to be aware moment to moment of what we are doing, whether it is eating bread, drinking wine, walking in the garden, playing with a child – everything is holy, everything is good, the kingdom is everywhere.
As the Zen masters said, after satori, enlightenment, bread remains bread, wine remains wine, walking remains walking, children remain children. Everything is the same and at the same time profoundly different. And the difference is in ourselves, not in the things. It is the same bread, but now we experience it not as just a piece of bread, but as something that is to be revered, as something to be shared, and in the sharing it is lifted up out of the ordinary. Yet it is still bread which nourishes our bodies, still wine which lets us feel good and brings laughter to our lips.
At the conclusion of the meal Jesus prays, “May they all be one as you Father are in me and I am in you.” The sharing of the enlightenment of the bread and wine brings about the connectedness of all. We are to be one with each other, to see and experience that oneness that is enlightenment. “In Christ there is no East nor West.”
The Agony in the Garden
After the meal which he shared with his followers Jesus went to Mount Olivet, where he said to his followers, “Pray that you may not be put to the test.”
In this time in the garden Jesus shows his solidarity with all those who suffer anywhere in the world: “As he was in agony, he prayed even more earnestly and great drops of blood formed like sweat and fell on the ground.” His blood, in a foreshadowing of his bleeding on the cross, mingled with the blood of all who go through agonies in the world, the great flood of suffering at the hands of tyrants and criminals that has gone on from time immemorial: “What though the darkness round me close, Songs in the night it giveth.”
And so by his agony in the garden all the suffering of the people gets taken up in a great song, a swelling of sound to heaven, until every person can join in:
“In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?”
The liturgical re-enactment of the Gospel story
The Jewish seder or passover meal was the occasion Jesus used to proclaim his oneness with the world, and also his coming agony, death and resurrection. He also used it to reaffirm his servant leadership, his being among his people “as one who serves.”
After the entrance rites the first reading from Exodus commemorates this link with the seder meal: “This month is to be the first of all the others for you, the first month of your year.” The reading ends with the exhortation: “For all generations you are to declare it a day of festival forever.”
The Psalm after the first reading is number 116:
“A thanksgiving sacrifice I make:
I will call on the Lord's name.
My vows to the Lord I will fulfil
before all his people.”
The second reading is from Paul's letter to the Corinthians in which he recalls the institution of the Eucharist: “Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.”
The Gospel tells the story of the washing of the feet as found in John 13: “Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.”
After a short homily the ritual washing of the feet, a re-enactment of Jesus's action, takes place. While this happens songs and psalms are sung:
“Where true love is dwelling, God is dwelling there;
Love’s own loving Presence love does ever share.
Love of Christ has made us out of many one;
In our midst is dwelling God’s eternal Son.
Give him joyful welcome, love him and revere;
Cherish one another with a love sincere.”
After the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar the Mass continues in the normal way.
After the conclusion of the Mass the altar is stripped and left bare. The Body of Christ is removed to a previously prepared altar of repose, where it will be kept until the Easter Vigil on Sunday morning. During the stripping of the altar a psalm is intoned, usually Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from me, from the sound of my groaning?”
In some parishes the Pange Lingua is sung in Gregorian mode during the stripping:
“In supremae nocte coenae
recumbus cum fratribus
observata lege plene
cibis in legalibus,
cibum turbae duodenae
se dat suis manibus.”
“On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with His chosen band,
He the Pascal victim eating,
first fulfils the Law's command;
then as Food to His Apostles
gives Himself with His own hand.”
As the altar is stripped and the procession to the altar of repose progresses the lights of the church are dimmed until the lighting is very low, and the people disperse into the night in silence, reliving the dispersal of the disciples. It is a moving and solemn moment.
Many people like to keep a vigil of prayer at the altar of repose, often right through the night. This in response to Jesus's appeal to his disciples to watch with him in the garden. For this reason too the altar is often surrounded by greenery.
Sitting in silent contemplation of the experiences of the liturgy and the Gospel story of Jesus's last night or human life is a fitting end to the emotional highs and lows of the story, a story of friendship and love, of service and betrayal, a human story that we can all relate to from our own experiences.
It is indeed a story of love made real in unstinting, free and total service without expectations.
- The Basin & Towel
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The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010