We have arrived at a day marked by a whole series of different events and it is easy to lose the thread.
What is this liturgy about? Is it about service – the foot washing? Is it about the Passover sacrifice? Is it about how the deepening darkness of the conflict that Jesus had to face? Is it about his being handed over thanks to the machinations of Judas? Is it about the institution of the Holy Eucharist?
Of course all of this comes into the picture of Maundy Thursday and it is impossible to take one part and isolate it from the rest. So there’s no true service of others without sacrifice, there can be no institution of the Eucharist without the handing over of Jesus, there can be no celebration of the Passover without its reinterpretation in Eucharist and in the dark struggle that Jesus entered for the redemption of the world. And at the heart of it all, there is the energy of God, revealed in all that Jesus does and is. And the clue is in the name – Maundy. From the Latin mandatum. Commandment. A new commandment I give you, says the Lord. To love one another. But how – there is no greater love than this – that a man lay down his life for his friends. And then, in the context of this supper, this Passover meal which celebrates the liberation of the people from slavery, Jesus lays down his life for us – this is my Body, this is my Blood. And then, another commandment. Do this as my anamnesis – do this in memory of me. Do this that all God is doing in me may be available here and now in a moment when the veil between heaven and earth is transparent.
At the beginning of Holy Week, the crowds go wild because they see someone they are happy to call Messiah. God’s anointed – the powerful one who will bring about a new order, who will be the leader of the nation they have longed for. But at the end of the week their cry is very different – crucify him! Why?
A clue can be found in what we are about now, and Peter’s words of protest. You shall never wash my feet, Lord! This is not a God-like activity. This is not the action of the Messiah. This is not what we expect of a King. And earthly kings expect their followers, their knights, their armies to do the laying down of life for them. Not the other way round!
It just isn’t what we expect, because what we want of our God is someone who has the same agenda as we do. Who punishes the wicked, rewards virtue, answers prayers, takes away pain and sorrow, makes everything ‘all right’.
Jesus shows us how infantile this view of God is, tonight above all. He shows us that God’s will and purposes are deeply mysterious – beyond our immediate understanding. He shows us that God hands himself over to those he loves. Above all, Jesus shows us that God is not the god of our agendas, an all-powerful, all-providing friend who supports our good causes and answers our prayers in the way that we want. Jesus shows us a mysterious God, but a God of compassionate love. The God who is all-powerful, because his power is that of love. The kind of love that empowers the beloved, gives the one-loved a kind of power over God.
Because if we love someone, we know that they have all kinds of power over us. The power, sometimes, to anger us, more usually the power to encourage, the power to bring the very best out of us and the power to allow us to suffer with the one we love, to be in profound harmony and communion with them. If you want to keep control of yourself, then don’t love!
So S. John tells us, Jesus had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was. He took a basin and washed the disciples’ feet. He took bread and wine and gave them – this is my Body, this is my Blood. He went into Gethsemane and handed over himself to God and to the prayers of his friends (though they went to sleep). When the police arrived, he handed himself over to them. And the next day he handed himself over to death on the Cross and left the outcome to God the Father. And all to show how perfect his love is. Love alone can do this – leaving the outcome of such love to the one loved.
This challenges many ideas of what God is like. It is an uncomfortable picture of God, but only if we believe that God is the all-powerful one who fulfils our every need and wish, the God of our human agendas. For those who see God as the God of love, he is the living bread broken for the life of the world which he loves to the uttermost, and the God who kneels at our feet in loving service. But above all, the world’s true hope and joy, majestic yet deeply mysterious.
We shall see just how mysterious in the coming days – in reality the great Three Days (the Triduum) are one great celebration – this liturgy leading into that of Good Friday and then that of Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil. And Easter Day.