Tonight we are remembering the words and example of Jesus at his last. What we do with the water basin for washing feet and at the altar for receiving the bread and wine, we do “in remembrance” of Christ (1). The Greek sense of this word “remember” is not so much to jog the memory, like tying a string to our finger so we don’t forget what Jesus said. No, it’s a much more profound remembering. It’s to remember like a surgeon “re-members,” when a surgeon re-attaches and sutures some membrane of the body that has been severed. It’s to take something that otherwise would be cut off, broken, lost, detached from our own life, in our relationship with God, to be reattached, reconnected, remembered. To re-member or be remembered in this way is to quite literally get in touch with Jesus, and at the deepest possible level.
The name for this Maundy Thursday remembrance, “Maundy,” derives from the Latin word, mandatum, from which comes our English words “mandate” and “command.” We will remember several of Jesus’ commands this evening. One command has to do with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. We remember tonight how Jesus was sitting with his disciples at table, how he took bread and wine, held it before them, and said that it was to be for them his body and his blood. He told them they (and we) are to do the same, in remembrance of him. In remembrance. It’s not so much to remember Christ in our head but to be re-membered by Christ in our whole being by quite literally “taking him in.” That’s one command. “Do this,” Jesus says. And we will take Jesus at his word, believing him to be really and tangibly present as his body and blood becomes part of our own body and blood, both symbolically and physically as we “take him in,” in the form of bread and wine.
Another of Jesus’ commands we re-member this evening is to love one another as Christ loves us. We will do that this evening following Jesus’ example in foot washing, which is quite an unusual experience for us in our day, but not in Jesus’ day. In first century Palestine, with people wearing sandals while walking the dusty roads, feet became very dirty. A householder would have a servant wash the feet of an arriving guest. This evening we become like servants in washing one another’s feet. But Jesus goes one step further, much more radically. Jesus says, “but I do not call you servants any longer; I now call you friends,” which invites a tender reciprocity (2). So we will have our feet washed and we will wash one another’s feet. We all are being invited to serve and be served, like friends. This levels the field, because Jesus presumes a kind of sameness about us all. We eat the same food from the same eucharistic table; we wash one another’s feet and we have our feet washed by one another. This is a template for how Jesus relates to the world, and he commands us to do the same, because we are so much the same, and in need of the same Savior: not some of us dirty and some of us pure; not some of us better, and some of us worse; not some of us more important and some of us less important; not some of us lost and some of us found. We’re all found, and what Jesus finds in us all, he loves (3). Jesus said, I have called you to one another as friends, to love one another as Jesus loves us.
Then, at the close of the liturgy, the high altar is stripped bare. This is to symbolize Jesus’ being stripped before the crucifixion, and it is a very stark reminder. This stripping away of the altar precedes a solemn procession where the just-consecrated bread and wine – called “the Blessed Sacrament” – is carried to the altar of the chapel in the rear, the Lady Chapel. That chapel space is darkened, and we all are given candles to light our way back in memory to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed into the night. Here the just-consecrated bread and wine (what Jesus called his body and blood) is exposed for us to experience, not through the sense of taste and touch (which we will have just done) but through our eyes, through the “eyes of our hearts.” (4) Gazing with the eyes of our heart is to see life in the present through the memory of the past. This is the night watch, where we watch and wait with Jesus, at his request, and before his crucifixion (5). The Monastery Chapel will be open all night for Brothers and for you, our guests, to pray into the night (or maybe even through the night).
One of the great gifts of the church year and the annual liturgical cycle is that things come around again, year-after-year. What catches our eyes and ears, taste and touch, what enlightens our heart one year may not be where we find ourselves in subsequent time. Think of a photographic album from some very important event in the past – perhaps the celebration of a wedding, or anniversary, or graduation, or birthday. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a picture in hand or in mind to be able to “remember,” to be able to return to an important time, now to be able to take in more than you could the first time. So you re-enter, you re-member the experience and you re-experience some things old, and some things new. To use this metaphor of a photograph, I’ll suggest several perspectives through which you might experience tonight’s liturgy and how you might pray.
One is with the foot washing. Many people are rather self-conscious about their feet. Feet are a usually-hidden part of our body. There have been some years in the past when, on Maundy Thursday, I have made sure to wash my own feet ahead of time and put on fresh socks. (I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression on someone having to wash my feet.) When we bare our feet, we are quite exposed, literally and symbolically. So tonight, what does the footwashing signify to you? Is there anything you are prone to keep disclosed or hidden from Jesus that needs to come into the light? What is it about you – your body, your fears, your needs, your memory, your future – that you otherwise keep covered, where Jesus is inviting you to uncover, to be seen and known, held and washed? Is there dirt that needs to be washed cleaned? What does footwashing symbolize for you just now?
Another perspective for tonight (another “snap shot” from memory) also has to do with water. I can imagine Jesus’ gently holding, caressing, bathing the disciples’ feet with water – water not just from the pitcher and basin but from the tears dropping from Jesus’ own eyes. Was there conversation while the footwashing was going on? I cannot imagine it. Silence is what I imagine, with only the sound of cleansing water and dripping tears: Jesus’ thinking back to days gone by, great days, joyful days, miraculous days, but, today, such a sad day. You may discover – far beyond your control – that you are being washed by the gift of tears tonight. Maybe you didn’t even know something was wrong, something was hurt, something was soiled, and you experience tonight a washing of your soul through the gift of tears.
And then there is the scene at the garden. I said a moment ago that one of Jesus’ commands tonight is to his disciples for them to wait and watch with him there in the garden. I think this was more a plea than it was a command: “Please don’t leave me alone,” Jesus was saying to them. So much of Jesus’ life was marked by those who really did not get the picture or hear the word. By this point all the multitudes, those palm-waving crowds, are long gone. And Jesus is left just with his disciples, all of whom are in the process of abandoning and betraying him… Just a few days earlier, there was all that commotion with the disciples’ fighting about who was first, who would be at Jesus’ right hand and who at his left when he came to Jerusalem. All that has all blown away now. The disciples are starting to get the real picture now. And the disciples are slowly, passively abandoning Jesus. Maybe that speaks to you? Your own flirtations with abandoning Jesus? Can you also hear how much Jesus not only wants you but needs you to watch and wait with him? Maybe the watch tonight is not about how much you need Jesus to be with you in your suffering, but about how much Jesus needs you to be with him in his suffering.
A final image: the Eucharist itself. You may find yourself, in this day of remembrance, remembering how important the Holy Eucharist has been or become for you. A sense of great thanks may be your prevailing emotion and preoccupying thought as you pray. How wonderful. I’ll close here with some historic words about the Holy Eucharist from the English monk, Dom Gregory Dix (6).
Jesus had commanded his friends to “do this for the remembrance of him, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. “Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it, to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men [and women] have found no better thing than to do this for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph, or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for [an explorer setting out to discover a new world]; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son; for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, a wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization of [a saint] – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men [and women] have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them… to make the plebs sancta Dei – to make the holy common people of God.”
- The Greek “anamnesis,” ἀνάμνησις (remembrance), which we read in Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.” See Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25.
- John 15:15.
- Decades later, St. Paul would write, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
- Alluding to Ephesians 1:16-18.
- Matthew 26:36-45.
- Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952) a monk and sometime Prior of Nashdom Abbey, an English Anglican Benedictine community. He was a noted liturgical scholar and is here quoted in his greatest work, The Shape of the Liturgy (1951), p. 744.
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