In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is Maundy Thursday. The word “maundy” comes from the Latin phrase, “mandatum novum da vobis,” – “a new commandment I give to you,” which we just heard the Lord say in the Gospel appointed for this evening. So the whole character of the liturgy for this evening is from this “mandatum novum” – this New Commandment, which is, of course, as Jesus said, “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
Earlier in this narrative, as we heard, and by way of illustration, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and declares himself to be not only his disciples’ Lord and Teacher, but also their great exemplar:
I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
This saying of the Lords drives at the heart of a false dichotomy that we might be tempted to detect in Christianity: as to whether our religion is all about Jesus doing stuff for us, or whether it is about his giving us stuff to do. The answer is, “both.” He washes his disciples’ feet, and so his disciples are to wash his disciples’ feet. He loves his disciples, and so his disciples are to love his disciples – to love one another. He is sent to the world, and so they are sent to the world. He humbles himself; and they are to humble themselves. He takes up his cross and proceeds to Golgotha; and they are to take up their crosses and follow him.
The liturgy tonight has a dual character. We have really reached the climax of Lent, with the great “Triduum” – the Great Three Days – which begin with Maundy Thursday, this evening. Hopefully Lent has been a time of penance and self-reflection. The liturgy has had a more austere feel to it, or it should have done. And yet here we are, close to the pinnacle of it all, and the vestments are white, the Golria in Excelsis is sung as bells are rung, and so on. And yet, as we shall soon see, from this almost festive mood, we descend very quickly into the darkness, because the Lord’s suffering commences this night as well.
This dual character of the liturgy is rooted in the dual character of the Gospel itself, of Jesus as at one and the same time the one who does these things on our behalf, as well as the one who commands us to do them. He is “the bread of God… which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world,” (John 6.33), but he is also the one who looks on the hungry crowds and says to his disciples, “YOU give them something to eat,” (cf. Mark 6.37).
So, as is often the case with the mysteries of our faith, tonight we are commemorating two sides of a coin. We rejoice because this night we receive a gift of inestimable value, for this is the night on which the Lord gives us the Holy Eucharist, the chief means by which he perpetuates his presence among us – he gives us a way to COMMUNION with him. But he gives us this gift tonight because tonight he will himself be taken away, dragged before Pilate, bruised, derided, cursed, defiled; and tomorrow he will be nailed to a tree, and laid in a tomb.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Notice what Jesus says – that “all men” should be able to see our love for one another, and from seeing it, reach the conclusion that we must be disciples of Jesus. We do well to check in with ourselves from time to time and see if this is so. Can the unbelieving world tell by our love for one another that we are disciples of Jesus? Do we even love one another, let alone conspicuously? More generally: when people see the way we live, knowing that we claim to be Christians, what will they think of Jesus and of the faith that we profess?
Jesus is our exemplar. His time in this world is running very short, and he gives us a new commandment. We are to love one another the way that he loved us. And how is that? Tonight’s gospel reading says that, “when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” (John 13.1); and then, “at supper with them he took bread, and when he had given thanks… he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.’”
The body of Jesus – crucified, risen, coming again with power – the body of Jesus, his PERSON, must become the bedrock of our life, not merely “as Christians,” but as human beings. In his power and by his Spirit, we must obey his commandments – and not least this “new commandment” he gives us tonight, to love one another CONSPICUOUSLY, as he has loved us. And the Holy Eucharist, the mass, is the means by which we become empowered to do that.
If we could only see with unveiled faces the reality of what goes on at every mass! Our attitude toward it would be considerably different. There would be no more negligence in preparation; we would never waltz in casually, halfway through; but we would fall down and WORSHIP, in fear and trembling, if we could only see with the eyes of our spirit through the veils of our flesh and our sinfulness. I have often been tempted to put signs up on the doors of this church: “be quiet / turn off your cellphone: you are coming into the presence of the Creator of the universe. HE IS REALLY HERE.”
I did not make this up. To make up something like that is far above my pay-grade. Jesus is the one who claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus is the one who commanded us to do this thing. Jesus is the one who said that this bread and this wine become his body and his blood. It may be difficult to believe, but take it up with him; not with me.
And this is why Catholic-minded Christians place such a heavy emphasis on the mass, on this thing that we do day-by-day in memory of Jesus: because it is the foundation of EVERYTHING else – the ground of our humanity, of our very BEING. It makes everything else possible. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (John 15.5); and without the mass, without this means to him, we remain apart from him. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” (John 6.56).
At the end of the day, ours is not a religion of abstractions, of dogmas, or of emotional experiences. All of these things may be a part of our religion and of our religious experience, but they are really subsidiary to this main point – namely the objective reality that is the living person of Jesus Christ: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” And “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Tonight we have an opportunity to look through the veil with spiritual eyes. Jesus speaks to us tonight so to empower us to do just that, to penetrate the veil by searching for him with an informed understanding. Search for him and you will find him. Search for him in the mass, in this last supper before his passion. Watch and pray with him in the garden, that you might not come into temptation. Take and eat him, and so be empowered to love your fellow disciples with his own conspicuous and transcendent love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.