Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Meanings

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days that carry a lot of meaning.  Layer upon layer of meaning, in fact.  So depending on whether you’ve chosen to sit on one the comfortable new pews, or one of the old rickety chairs, this extra-long sermon is going to be either a great pleasure, or a great pain!

Let’s deal with the word – first.  ‘Maundy’ is said to come from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command.  It refers to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, when Jesus commands that we should love one another, just as he has loved us – by serving each other.

Another suggestion that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  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.  The distribution of Maundy Money at Worcestshire Cathedral by the Queen, on behalf of His Majesty, is an echo of that practice.  I can’t say that I like the idea of monarchs and lords dispensing charity to beggars on their way to church.  It feels a bit to much like ‘trickle-down’ economics to me.  But today’s practice of Maundy Money does at least honour the service that its recipients have given.

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 our Diocesan Bishop, Jonathan.   This morning, clergy from the around the diocese gathered with Bishop Jonathan in the cathedral – including clergy from the Isle of Wight who looked a little bit grreen in the gills, considering the windy weather.

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are really 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 that stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  It’s a good opportunity because, whilst we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a week at St Faith’s, its deep meaning 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. 

According to Paul’s account, 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 remember the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, whatever that phrase may mean, theologically.  We bring these and many other remembrances together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

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.  We believe that Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper to be 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.

Today, we are also offered John’s account of this famous last supper.  Intriguingly, John (the most theological writer of the Gospels) makes no mention of the words of Institution at all.   Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist. 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.  John tells us the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet.  He prompts us to ask what service WE can offer to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

What if John’s Gospel was the only one we had?  How different would the church be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the washing of each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, or even a cross, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and love our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meanings.  I hope these last few minutes have opened up some of them.  But Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet!  At the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the consecrated body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  By 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, wash their feet, metaphorically, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?  Amen. 

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