Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days which tries (and usually fails) to communicate a lot of meaning in a single day. And that’s because there’s a lot of story wrapped up in the day, for us to get our heads around.
The name, ‘Maundy’, is generally believed to derive from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command. It is said to refer to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus gives his command that we should love on another, just as he has loved us.
Other etymologists argue that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’. The French word mutated into the Old English maund, which as a verb means to beg and as a noun refers to a small basket held out by maunders as they maunded. That has some weight, as an explanation, because it remembers a time when Monarchs and Lords would distribute charity to beggars, on their way to the celebration of the institution of the Last Supper. That is a tradition which still hangs on in the form of the Maundy Money, which our Sovereign distributes to selected subjects on this day.
Another grand tradition of Maundy Thursday is that Bishops perform the Chrism Mass – during which Holy Oils are blessed and distributed to parish churches for use in baptism, confirmation and healing ceremonies throughout the year. The oils, blessed by the Bishop, are a sign of that our little parish church is part of a much larger family – the Diocesan family, under the headship of a Diocesan Bishop.
The Chrism Mass is also an opportunity for all the clergy and readers of the Diocese to renew the vows they made at ordination and licensing. It was a bit tricky for us all to gather in the Cathedral this year, because of the pandemic restrictions. So instead, we gathered in smaller groups, all across the Diocese, and participated in online worship from the Cathedral. For me, it was quite a change to be an online worshipper, rather than an online worship leader!
But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are just peripheral issues to the main purpose of Maundy Thursday. The proper title for the day is ‘The Feast of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper’ – or the Holy Communion – or the Mass – or the Eucharist. Whatever your preference is! Together, we are invited to reflect more deeply on the deep significance of the service which stands at the heart of our worship, week by week. Because, the deep meaning of the Eucharist can sometimes be lost among other theological ideas which are being expressed or explored during those services.
Maundy Thursday is our chance to strip away such distractions, and focus on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples on that “last night, before he was betrayed”. The readings we’ve just heard convey to us that there are many layers of meaning, depending upon on whose account of the event we focus.
If we listen to Paul’s account (which was handed on to him, no doubt by one or more of those present on the night) then the significance of the Last Supper was undoubtedly the symbolic offering of bread and wine, by Jesus, as symbols and signs of his body and blood.
Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ – and perhaps we should focus for a moment on that word ‘remember’. Our ‘members’ are our limbs, our organs; the parts of our body. When we talk about being ‘members’ of a club or a church, we’re talking about individual people. To ‘re-member’ something, then, is to bring together, in our minds eye, separate body parts, or people, into one collective whole. In remembering Jesus, we are invited to draw together all that we know about him…all that we love about him. We’re encouraged to see the totality of his life, teaching and example. We’re encouraged to remember his unique connection to the Divine, and the glory of his fully-lived humanity, brought together in one man. We’re encouraged to draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. And of course we remember his glorious resurrection, and the hope it offers for all humanity. We bring all this – and much more – together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’. ‘This is my blood’.
And there’s more! We don’t just bring Christ together in our minds, we also come together to do this act of obedience and worship. The church has long-since taught that if I were to celebrate the Eucharist on my own, in splendid isolation, it would not be a valid Eucharist. Its full power and meaning would be lost. Because, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as an essentially communal act. This is something we do together. We literally ‘re-member’, bring together, the living members of the body of Christ, every time we enact this service.
I referred to Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper just now. But today, we are also offered John’s account. John reports this occasion very differently. He actually makes no mention of the words of Institution at all – perhaps because by the time John was writing, Paul’s narrative (and that of the other Gospellers) was already well-known, and didn’t need repeating. Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.
In doing so, John shifts our focus slightly. He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist, in terms of food for our spiritual journey. I think John might not have approved of those Christians who even today talk about ‘making MY communion’. Instead, John invites us think about what we might give as a result of the Eucharist. What service can we offer, to our brothers and sisters, and to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.
My friend, the theologian Martin Mosse has often prompted me to ask how different the institution of the church might be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the giving of the gift of washing each other’s feet. What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, but a jug of water and a towel? What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and serve our neighbours?
So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meaning. The best I can hope to do in these few minutes is to unfold some of the meanings for us – and encourage each of us to take time to ponder them. And Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet. For at the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel. In doing so, we will remember how Jesus was himself carried away from his disciples. How bereft must they have felt? How lost, how frightened they must have been! Perhaps this loneliness might remind us of those we know who are feeling lonely and lost tonight. Perhaps we might reach out to them, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?
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