Thursday, April 28, 2011

Now What?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13.34-35)

The First Order

Last Thursday I finally tracked down the answer to a question that skates through my mind every Holy Week: What does “Maundy” mean? Since it’s exclusively attached to Thursday’s commemorations of The Last Supper—the symbol-laden repast in which Jesus prepares the disciples for His death—I thought it might be an archaic term for “mourning.” Or perhaps it was derived from the same root as “mundane,” underscoring Good Friday’s Eve as Jesus’s last night of “normal,” i.e. mortal, existence. With Holy Communion as the focus of Maundy Thursday rites—celebrating the Eucharist’s open table (rather than the Old Testament’s hidden altar) as Christianity’s central metaphor—surely the word alludes, in some fashion, to the ultimate sacrifice that made redemptive grace possible. Not so.

“Maundy” derives from the Latin “mandatum” (“commandment”), the first word in the invocation traditionally spoken at Holy Thursday Mass: Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos. Or, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13.34) While Maundy Thursday liturgies have evolved to emphasize the Eucharistic precedent—in some cases, also recreating the washing of disciples’ feet that precedes it—it fascinates me our ancestors placed top priority on the new edict, to the point they named the day “Commandment Thursday.” Unlike modern believers, whose exposure to unjust atrocities and psychology’s blame-games steers Holy Week emotions toward guilt and regret, it appears medieval Christians celebrated Maundy Thursday as the start of something new—the new commandment Jesus issues, the new covenant sworn in His blood, and the new life that forever redefines mortality. Thus, Jesus’s final mandate to the disciples at table becomes the first order of business for all disciples who join them at table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Unity and Continuity

Hindsight equips us to detect the new command’s urgent reasoning. Yet it completely escapes the disciples. They can’t possibly know they’ll be Leaderless in less than 24 hours, a crucial concern for Jesus, as they’re by nature a quarrelsome, unruly bunch. His handpicked successor, Peter, is impetuous, given to rash talk and even rasher reactions—not someone who works best under pressure. James and John shamelessly jockey for position. In Mark 10, after Jesus predicts His death a third time, they respond by requesting, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (v36) Judas, of course, has already checked out mentally and will soon permanently remove himself from the company. Yet his indignation at Jesus’s permitting a woman to anoint Him with costly ointment and the extreme action he takes because of it surely heighten the group’s tensions. Mary Magdalene’s invaluable role as Easter’s first messenger confirms her prominence. Her influence among Jesus’s female disciples is evident when she organizes and leads their predawn procession to the Tomb. She too will have a voice in their future and sizeable support for her opinions. Jesus’s mother and siblings will need to be consulted as well, while the remaining disciples form alliances based on friendships, family loyalties, and blind faith. The outlook for future stability is not good.

With Jesus presumably dead and gone—His promised resurrection never quite sticks in their minds—the disciples’ immediate question will be, “Now what?” How do they implement His teaching without His guidance? Who among them understands it well enough to build on? Who would deign to take charge in His absence? Jesus knows His disciples better than they. His physical presence is their only bond. Without it, they’re destined to splinter into competing factions. Weaknesses and vanities will destroy their unity of purpose to continue His work. He has tasked them to start something new—a revolutionary way of life founded on faith in the impossible, driven by love’s power to defy earthly logic and mortal terror, even the fear of death. Bearing these concerns in mind, He answers the “Now what” question in advance with a new commandment that ensures unity (“Love another”) and continuity (“as I have loved you”). Albeit not without tremendous difficulty and occasional failure, the Apostles’ love for one another becomes their sustaining strength and most powerful witness as true disciples. They create something new and make it last by replicating Christ’s patient, selfless, and unequivocal love for each of them and every believer who joins their ranks.

Commandment Day

Although the Church’s emergence as an unparalleled spiritual, cultural, and political institution has fostered grievous disregard—and blatant disobedience—of Christ’s mandate, it remains a cardinal rule no faithful disciple can ignore. In fact, given how criminally we’ve abused the Maundy charter, determination to honor it at all costs has never been more urgent. We’re by nature a quarrelsome, unruly bunch. Foolhardy refusal to place Christ-like love for one another above human ambition has repaid us with crippling hatred, suspicion, prejudice, and divisiveness. Deficient discipline to love each other as Jesus commands—patiently, selflessly, and unequivocally—has turned our attention from creating something new to perpetuating antiquated ideas and customs. We fight to the death, figuratively and literally, to protect the Church’s “integrity,” never realizing animosities in our walls give lie to the integrity of our witness in the world.

Absence of love is why we feel no compunction about fighting over doctrine and dogma. It’s why we splice Scripture to slice each other to shreds. It’s why Christ’s principles of compassion, justice, and equality get trampled in pursuit of self-idolatry, advantage, and conformity. It’s why one denomination conceals and excuses pedophiles, another funds a proposition to deny same-sex partners their Constitutional right of legal union, and numerous others pollute their pulpits and pews with inflammatory rhetoric about anyone or anything that contradicts their views. Dissect our sources of conflict to your liking. In the end, they all expose deafness to Christ’s new command. If we truly love one another as Jesus loved us, we’ll die for one another before differences destroy us, our witness as Christ’s disciples, and our commitment to Christ’s work.

And so, by definition, the Maundy Thursday we observed one week ago—and will hopefully observe to the end of time—was originally ordained to coalesce around Jesus’s mandate for unified love. It’s the spiritual surrogate of His physical Presence that seals our common bond. It’s the supernatural force that transforms the Eucharist into Holy Communion and exalts the thankless task of washing another’s feet into an act of grateful humility. It signifies the creation of something new, something we make new with each new day. Once we grasp the gravity of Christ’s new command, we’ll no doubt echo the disciples’ question. Now what? Perhaps we start by liberating “Maundy” from Holy Week and celebrating every day God gives us as “Commandment Day.”

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In obedience to Christ’s new command, we greet each dawn as the start of something new made possible by our uncompromised love for one another.


Cathy said...

Excellent post, Tim. I've wondered about the word maundy like you. Thanks for doing the research for me. :>0

"Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
This commandment is the largest challenge humankind has faced. Free will reigns.

If people allowed themselves to experience the overwhelming love that is there for them, discipleship would then become their response.

Maybe some day, it will come to pass.

Tim said...

Hi, Cathy--and happy Eastertide! As I'm sure you caught from the tone of the post, discovering the real meaning of "maundy" was a stunner for me. How have we lost its true essence?

There are dozens of reasons we can reach for, of course--your mention of free will topping the list. Yet I can't help but think Christ sees our "reasons" for what they actually are: excuses. Loving one another as Jesus loved His disciples swims against many attitudes that defeat the unity and care within the Body of Christ: the obsession with proving we're doctrinally correct, religious pride, competitive drive, herd mentality, and so on. If every schism and/or believer claiming exclusive right to the pipeline of Truth were credible, heaven only knows how many pipelines there would be! (And what plumbing problems we would--do--have!)

You sum up the case beautifully. Love given begets love received. It is the disciple's calling card, the telltale differentiator between obedient followers of Christ and what my grandmother called "Sunday saints." Like you, I too hope and pray that day comes. In the meantime, we who have heard Christ's commandment must faithfully live by it, doing our best to show others it can be done. (After all, we are the light of world and salt of the earth...)

Thanks so much for your thoughts. They brighten the post and bless me greatly!

With disciple-to-disciple, Christian love,