Sunday, April 1, 2012


Footwashing -- window, Christ Church, Korntal, Germany

Thursday of Holy Week has multiple commemorations. Within a few hours, a host of events took place that proved to have lasting theological significance -- the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus, his institution of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ in the upper room at Passover, his betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his late night trial, and Peter’s denial before cock crow.

It is the first of these, however, from which the day takes its traditional name. ‘Maundy’ is a corruption of the Latin for ‘command’. The allusion is to a verse from the Gospel of the day, John 13:34: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’. Elsewhere, Jesus teaches that the whole of the Law and the Prophets can be summarized in the two ‘Great” Jewish commandments – to love God and neighbor. In the intimacy of the upper room and the last supper that he shared with his disciples, he adds a third commandment, the distinctively Christian injunction that ‘you love one another’. His initial washing of the disciples feet was intended to symbolize this love, and that is still the meaning the practice is supposed to have.

Last Supper -- Andy Warhole
One of the Church Fathers, Tertullian, writing in the second century, remarks that it was observing this third commandment that made the greatest impact on the pagan world. Those who knew nothing else about Christianity nevertheless marveled: “See how these Christians love one another”. Yet in many ways it has proved the most difficult of the three for followers of Christ to observe, so much so, that in later centuries Tertullian’s remark took on an ironic, even scornful resonance. Christians, it seems, can come to regard each other with a hatred far more powerful than any aversion they may have to skeptics and unbelievers.

Maundy Thursday presents us with an annual opportunity to make a new and serious attempt to change this, and thereby realize Christ’s most heartfelt wish, and his most inspiring prediction: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

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