Novum Mandatum – A Homily for Maundy Thursday

 

This evening marks the beginning of the triduum – the three sacred days – beginning on the evening of Maundy Thursday, and culminating in the Eucharist at the Great Vigil of Easter. In order to better understand the triduum, we first must let go of our modern, technological modes of timekeeping. To the Ancients, the next day did not begin when the clock struck midnight; rather, the next day began at sundown. This is exactly why Jews, observing the Sabbath, do so from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It is a time to turn off bright lights and buzzing alarms; a time to unplug and reestablish our natural lunar and solar cycles.

And so, in this very old way of keeping time, we begin these three sacred days this evening as the sun sets. Thursday sundown to Friday sundown – day one. Friday sundown to Saturday sundown – day two. Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown – day three. The three sacred days, wherein we celebrate the paschal mystery: the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

If we pay close attention to the liturgies spread across these three sacred days, we will notice that these are not three separate liturgies, but one cohesive drama stretched over the course of these three days. This evening, for instance, there will be no dismissal when we reach the end of our bulletin, we will simply depart in silence.

Tomorrow, on Good Friday, we pick up right where we left off this evening, and still at the end of tomorrow’s bulletin, there will be no dismissal. We continue again on Saturday at sundown, kindling the new fire in the darkness, keeping vigil in the hope of the resurrection of the Lord.

But before we get to the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Lord, first here tonight, we are invited into an incredibly intimate scene with Jesus and his disciples. It is a scene that takes place in the upper room of Jerusalem, just before the great festival of Passover.

The First Lesson this evening, taken from the book of Exodus, recalls the first Passover of the Lord, the time when God delivered the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt. They were given instructions on how to make preparations, a sort of ancient version of fast food, ready to take on the road. “You won’t need any leftovers, because tomorrow you’re outta here. Eat this meal girded, and ready to go.” So, first, we notice that the passover is about deliverance from bondage and oppression. God is about to set us free.

We notice, too, in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, how Jesus commemorated this passover with his disciples, and imbued it with new meaning. In the passover meal and in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, there is both a sense of continuity with tradition, as well as innovation as Jesus tells his disciples to do this “in remembrance of me.” Traditioned innovation, we might call it.

So, too, is there continuity and innovation in the very old commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus’ new commandment, “Just as I have loved you, so also should you love one another.” You see, the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” was a very old instruction given to the people of Israel. It is mentioned many places throughout the Old Testament, most notably in the book of Leviticus (19:18), “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

In this sense, this is not just a new commandment Jesus is giving to his disciples. It is a new take on very old instruction. However, Jesus does imbue this commandment with new meaning as he, himself shows by his example what this love should look like. No longer is it enough to treat one’s neighbor as you might wish to be treated. Jesus is reinterpreting this great commandment and giving himself as the example of how it should be lived out: Love one another as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In the Passover and in the Eucharist, in the old commandment and in the new; there is both continuity and innovation, embodied in the example of Jesus.

Now, lest this become merely a cerebral, intellectual exercise soon forgotten by his disciples, Jesus demonstrates an act of love towards his disciples that is as practical as it is profound: he washes their feet.

Now, my assumption is that as we come forward this evening, most of us won’t have mud and muck stuck to our soles. Sure, we might have sweaty feet or a little lent between our toes, but this is a far cry from the funky feet of the disciples. Jesus, in an act of service, did something practical for those he loved. He washed their dirty feet. We see Jesus’ practicality contrasted with Peter’s all-or-nothing attitude, telling Peter that he doesn’t need a bath head-to-toe, he just needs his feet washed.

(As an aside, I can’t help but think Jesus might’ve gotten his inspiration from Mary of Bethany – the woman who, just a few days previously, had washed his feet, and anointed them with oil. I think it is a profound thought to consider that Jesus might have learned this act of service from his friend, Mary)

I’ve often wondered what a modern day equivalent of foot washing might be for us as disciples of Jesus Christ. Lest we make this merely a symbolic act, that meets no real need, what will this foot washing challenge us to consider? Where, and whose and how will we wash feet when we depart from this place?

One example of a man who took Jesus’ command as both practical and profound, is the late Gregorian friar, Brother Ron Fender. Br. Ron passed away just this past January, but his example and ministry will live on in those he has inspired.

An accomplished thespian for much of his life, “in 2002 Ron traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee carrying only a bucket and a suitcase, to fulfill his calling to wash the feet of the homeless. For more than ten years he served as an outreach case manager with the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, where his foot care ministry grew to serve thousands each year. During his tenure, he also developed permanent supportive housing, focused on end-of-life care, was a tireless advocate and was simply unconditionally present for anyone who needed his help. A vowed member of the Brotherhood since 2006, Ron made life profession of vows in 2011 and lived into his vocation as a Gregorian friar through his work among the homeless.” (From Br. Ron’s obituary in the Chattanooga Times)

The reason I tell you this brief story is not because I think Br. Ron was a special exception. I tell you this story because I cannot help but think of Br. Ron each and every Maundy Thursday. His life is witness to the truth that it is possible to take Jesus at his word, it is possible to wash one another’s feet, it is possible to love one another as Jesus loved us. This is not love in the abstract, this is love in the concrete, physical realm of our existence. Love one another as I have loved you.

In countless ways, all around us, we can see that the call of Jesus is as practical as it is profound. When Jesus offers bread and wine, he offers his own flesh and blood, which is to say – he offers himself. This is not some theological concept or philosophical proof, this is Jesus being present with his disciples, this is Jesus being present to us.

This evening as you come forward to wash feet and have your feet washed; as you come forward to receive the presence of Jesus in this bread and in this cup – know that this is how Jesus is known: that we love one another as he loved us.

 

The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry

St. Paul’s – San Antonio

Maundy Thursday (2016)

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