The most common question I get asked about Easter is about today. People get Palm Sunday and Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but Maundy Thursday is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: what does ‘Maundy’ mean? It’s a good question.
I mean, who uses the term ‘Maundy’ in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those on the inside, it might just sound like a service where we know we should attend, but we have no idea why.
But before I talk about what the word means, I want to think a little about how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table and he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest need.
And yet, there he is. Breaking bread and sharing the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet. Showing them his love and grace and compassion, at a time when we might have fully understood his anger.
In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or when ‘an eye for an eye’ cries for justice, it’s a very different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it most.
And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and religious leaders of his day, than any weapon or any army.
He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.
The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead, he was with the ones he loved the most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone. And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in.
Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?
The word ‘Maundy’ comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means ‘mandate’ or a ‘commandment’. And when we talk about ‘Maundy Thursday’ we’re talking about ‘Mandate Thursday’. We’re talking about the night that Jesus told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.
And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, the lead character would be saying something like “avenge my death”, or “make sure there’s payback”, or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back”. But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head.
The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do is this:
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.
In today’s world it wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t achieve high Netflix ratings nor would it soar to the top of the Sunday Times bestsellers list.
But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.
It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. I’d rename it something like “Love One Another Thursday”, or “The Last Thing Jesus Really Wanted Us To Know Thursday”.
Because this is a message all Christians need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to check it off as another service/event in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Jesus said other people would know us: by how we love one another.
Maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the forefront of our minds, Jesus’ dream for us would come true.
Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Jesus’ disciples by the fact we put a fish sticker on our car; or wear a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by what we said about what we believed or how angry we can be or for the sour taste we can often leave behind in people’s lives. Maybe we would be known by the one thing Jesus wanted us to be known: by how we love.
When we celebrate Communion together you’ll hear the words
On the night Jesus was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.
And yet those words can become lost in a blur of familiarity.
But what if you heard this just as often too?
On the night Jesus was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, “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.
We don’t say that often. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.
Between this Maundy Thursday, and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But for those of who follow Jesus, we can give Jesus nothing less.
Tonight, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Jesus’ love for us, and to bring that love to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. Because, by our love, they would already know. Amen.
A Maundy Thursday Prayer
John 13:1-17; John 13:34-35
You sent your Son into the world,
And before his hour had come,
He washed his disciples’ feet.
You had given all things into his hands.
He had come from you, and was going to you,
And what did he do?
He knelt down on the floor,
And washed his friends’ feet.
He was their teacher and their Lord,
Yet he washed their feet.
Lord God, help us learn from his example;
Help us to do as he has done for us.
The world will know we are his disciples
If we love one another.
Strengthen our hands and our wills for love
And for service.
Keep before our eyes the image of your Son,
Who, being God, became a Servant for our sake.
All glory be to him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.