Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a prominent theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture which surrounds us. That was a radical statement to make, but what was even more shocking and unexpected was his insistence that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight’s liturgy, I think, can help us understand why this is true.
Tonight, we watch in wonder as the only begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight, we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around his waist, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. Tonight, the King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical way in which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]: