If you are part of a church that is celebrating Holy Week, then chances are you will be going to a Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday service today. This is a service where there is a celebration of the institution of both the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, and the mandatum, or “new covenant.” This Latin word mandatum, the first in the Vulgate’s (the Latin New Testament) rendering of John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,”–is the etymology of the name Maundy and, well, the service is on a Thursday. This is the beginning of what is known as the Easter Triduum and, as such, is a wonderful way to celebrate Easter. But, hearer beware! Taken alone, this service, with the backing of this verse, has wrecked untold havoc on the Christian church. Bring back dietary laws and tithing and ethical dealings, i.e., something we can actually control, but a command to love? Taken out of context, this new commandment makes Medieval Catholic pastoral practice look like the height of God’s mercy, because at least that is something I can do.
The appointed readings try their best to protect you from the preacher, but usually to no avail. Beginning with an account of the first Passover, they turn to the Psalmist exclaiming his hope in the mercies of God, Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper and then the Apostle Paul reminding the Corinthians that the entire point of the service is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” Despite the best efforts of the Bible, once again, most preachers will almost universally take this opportunity and point to this mandadum of Jesus, the “new commandment” combined with the second aspect of traditional Maundy Thursday services, the foot washing, and use it to further enslave people to the law by ignoring the “love chronology.”
The proper chronology begins with God as viewed along the lines of Aristotle’s “prime mover.” With respect to God and love, we are like croquet balls who, when struck, have no choice but to move.
Or, to baptize the simile, like a bell that is struck by the clapper and then continues to resonate and peal forth, so we see the actions and working of God as this prior movement, the great swinging mallet that has set his people free and created his church, otherwise known as the assembly of resonating hearts. This is how any celebration of the institution of the Lord’s supper, any Maundy Thursday service, should be framed: we thank God for the institution of the Lord’s supper because it is the only place to come and hear time and time again the very words of Jesus proclaiming to all who are in hearing distance, that all of this was done—pro nobis—for us.
Certainly, the reading concerning the Passover supports this point, because emphasizing the active nature of the Israelites role in the Exodus is like congratulating someone for getting rescued from drowning! (not incidentally, as any lifeguard will tell you, the most difficult people to save are the ones who are trying to save themselves) In any case, the Psalmist seems to understand himself as the grateful recipient of God’s saving action. In Psalm 116, we read him exclaiming: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. I believed, even when I spoke, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.” What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”
However, this revelation of God’s loving, prior action is neither self-evident nor easily understood, even to Peter who, it says that after supper when Jesus began to wash the disciples feet questioned, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” But there it is, the radical message of God’s love that upends our merit-based conceptions, the one that “justifies the UN-Godly.” And when the celebration of the Lord’s supper is seen in this light, when it is shown to be the height of our passive reception of the prior love of God, then it becomes that which has sustained and strengthened and encouraged and created Christians throughout history. This overwhelming sense of gratitude, this overwhelming sense of being shown mercy, of being forgiven of being fully known and fully loved, this is the miracle and mystery of the Christian life.
Despite what many of you might be subjected to during a sermon on the “new commandment,” we are not left with a vague sense of what it means to “love as he loved” that just so happens to correspond to the social politics of the preacher, we are given the specific message that Love was shown to us as undeserved mercy while we were were still sinners, while we were enemies, writes the Apostle Paul. None other than Peter, no stranger to undeserved mercies, writes of this “living hope”in his 1st Epistle, the —ἐλπίδα ζῶσαν — that, as he writes, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”
And it is this “joy inexpressible” that has (ideally) surrounded celebrations of the Lord’s Supper since its inception. Not because of what it is in itself—a bit of bread, a sip of wine—but because of what it communicates to the faithful who are surrounded around it and united in Jesus’ name, the one that has gripped emperors and laborers and artists and doctors, people from the east to the west, the message that Jesus Christ has come not to condemn the world, but to save it. This is the resounding clapper of the “one, holy and apostolic bell.” It is the mallet that was struck against the hearts of the first people to be grasped by its message and that which has resonated from every table and Eucharistic celebration at every corner of the world. Like the Psalmist who cries out with amazement that he has been shown mercy, we can celebrate the undeserved gift of being able to lift up the cup of salvation the Lord’s Supper, confidently proclaiming his death until he comes again.
This is the resounding message that never changes, one that we, like people throughout the ages, have come to time and time again with different longings, fears, expectations and concerns and yet, we leave with the solid, unchanging, resounding blow: this is my body, broken for you, this is my blood, shed for you, this is my life, poured out for you. Ring them bells, indeed.