The ancient designation of this day is "Maundy," a form of the word "mandate." And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.
The mandate on this day is to love one another.
The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to "remember me," of Jesus washing his followers' feet.
But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to "watch with me for a little while," when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier's ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.
When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.
But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.
In some respects, our observation of Holy Week and our longed for celebration of Easter Joy are broken this year. We are not together in the way that we always thought we would be together. We are physically separated, socially distanced, self-isolated. We cannot yet meet with one another, we cannot yet meet the risen Christ, in the breaking of the bread.
In the record of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal. In John's gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: "Do this in remembrance of me."
The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbour, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbours.
John's relation of the story of this day has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship. John's message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.
To love one another is our mandate for this day. And we are seeing that lived out on a daily basis. We see ordinary men and women express their love in extraordinary ways. We see extraordinary men and women express their love in ordinary ways. When we can again come together and when we can again break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we continue to remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example of taking care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord. Amen
The Rev Dr Adrian Burdon
Shaw & Royton Circuit of the Methodist Church