Maundy Thursday 2011
“He had always loved those who were his own in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was.”
The fullness of God’s love for us and for the whole of his creation is what Jesus came to show us and if it is true that he shows us this love throughout his earthly life, then it is even truer to say that he shows us this love in all its power and intensity in his Passion, Death and Resurrection. But, in Christ, God doesn’t simply show us his love, (What would be the point of that?) but he shares that love with us. The purpose of Christ’s Incarnation was to anchor us firmly in God’s love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” said Jesus to Nicodemus at the beginning of his ministry. Tonight’s commemoration of the Lord’s Supper brings home to us the extent of that love in all its simplicity on the one hand and in all its magnitude on the other. The Eucharist we are celebrating is God’s chosen way of conveying that love to us.
In his commentary on St John’s Gospel, St Augustine develops and explains the concept of the “new commandment” that Jesus speaks of to his disciples during the Last Supper. “Was it not contained in the old law, where it is written, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’? Why does the Lord call it new when it is clearly so old?” The commandment is new because Jesus also said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” It is not a natural love that Jesus is talking about but a supernatural, divine love, a love that divests us of our former selves and clothes us with a new person. In Christ we no longer love people for our own selfish ends, nor merely on account of our common humanity, but because we recognise ourselves and others to be children of God. Through Christ and by the power of sacramental grace we love one another as God loves us so that we might become what he has created us to be: brothers and sisters of his only Son, “one body, one spirit in Christ” as the Third Eucharistic Prayer succinctly puts it.
This love is the gift of God, who invites us in Christ to open our hearts and minds to him. So, at the Last Supper, having observed Jewish custom up to this moment, Jesus does something strange and unexpected, something almost unacceptable to the disciples and, perhaps, to us as well. He removes his outer garment, takes a towel and wraps it around his waist. He then pours water into a basin and begins to wash their feet and wipe them with the towel he is wearing. Among those whose feet he washes is Judas, who is about to betray him. You see, God’s love knows no limits. Jesus comes to Simon Peter last of all, so he has had time to think about what he’s going to say. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Just as Jesus tries to explain, he appears to interrupt him, almost in anger, “Never! You shall never wash my feet.” But when Jesus goes on, “If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me,” he goes over the top in typical Petrine fashion, “Then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”
The words of Jesus, “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example that you may do what I have done,” reiterate, this time in a very practical way, his saying, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Divine love is rooted in humility and self-emptying, in service and sacrifice. He is, of course, preparing them for that ultimate act of love, his Passion and Death. The Cross, that cruel epitome of suffering, pain and death, now becomes a sign of love, hope and salvation. It is no longer seen as an instrument of torture and annihilation but as the means of forgiveness and reconciliation and the throne of all grace.
How are we to respond to the Lord’s invitation to wash our feet, bearing in mind that unless we allow him to wash our feet we will be unable to wash the feet of others? St Aelred, preaching in Chapter to his monks one Maundy Thursday, said, “When he rises from table, girds himself with the towel and pours water into the basin, consider what majesty it is that is washing and drying the feet of mere mortals, what graciousness it is that touches with his sacred hands the feet of the traitor. Look and wait and, last of all, give him your own feet to wash, because those whom he does not wash will have no part with him. What sweetness, what grace and tenderness, what light and devotion we imbibe from that fountain. There indeed are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of mercy, the abode of loving kindness, the honeycomb of eternal sweetness.”
God loves us so much that in Baptism we receive not only the forgiveness of our sins but are consecrated as his sons and daughters. In Confirmation we are given the fullness of the Holy Spirit while in the Eucharist we are fed on the Body and Blood of Christ and thereby enter into communion with the Holy Trinity. We are given a foretaste of heaven when God will be all in all. Tonight, it is only possible to wash the feet of twelve representatives of the congregation, but while their feet are being washed, offer your own feet to Jesus. Make a spiritual communion and say to him, in the words of St Peter, “Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”