Just four days ago, on Palm Sunday, we read the story of Christ’s betrayal and death. We took on the voices of Pilate, of Judas, of Peter, of Christ, of the crowds. We stepped into roles in the narrative, adding our voices to a story that began in adoration and ended in sadness, even in dread, moving from Hosanna to Kyrie, from the soft green of palm branches to the rough wood of the crucifixion tree.
Tonight, instead of telling the Passion story, we begin to live it, as we step into this deep trinity of days known as the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil. We begin, tonight, with the shared meal of the Eucharist, a last fellowship with Christ before he gives himself up. We read the words of the Epistle, those words now woven into our liturgy, echoed every time we take communion together:
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
We break this bread, we take this cup, we pray the prayer he taught us to pray. Music ceases, we strip the altar, we dim the lights, we leave in silence. We wait and watch with Christ over this dark night. We follow him from prayer to arrest in the garden of Gethsemane to his trial, to the cross, through the awfulness of Good Friday, and we again keep vigil at the tomb as we await the dawn of the brightest morning of the year, the brightest morning of our faith. We die with Christ and we rise again.
Father Tim Schenck, a priest and writer in Massachusetts, describes the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil – as one liturgy in three movements.
And the Triduum is, in that same sense, a single story in three parts, holding within it life and death and life again. Its story does not end on the cross. Neither does ours.
So, Maundy Thursday. Before the dark road, we gather, here in this warm, lit room, with each other, to share a meal. And it is in this room, in memory of that upper room 2,000 years ago, that we find the heart of Holy Week. It is in this room that we remember why: Why the garden, why the betrayal, why the crucifixion, why the resurrection.
Simon Peter doesn’t get it, not right away. “You will never wash my feet,” he tells his teacher, his master and his friend.
Jesus tells him, you are not with me if you do not allow me to serve you. At that, Peter leaps from uncertainty to embrace – give me everything, then, he says: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Maundy Thursday is the heart of Holy Week because it is the beginning of something new. It is the very first Eucharist, the night that Jesus asks those who love him to accept his sacrifice. It is the night when Jesus shows us why the garden, why the betrayal, why the crucifixion, why the resurrection.
Here, says Jesus, is everything. There is a reason to all of this – the crucifixion, the washing of your feet.
I do not wash your feet because we are a fellowship alone. I do not wash your feet to honor just you, or to cement our friendship. I do this because I want you to do the same. We are not alone. I’ll be leaving you soon, and you must remember this, because you will feel alone. I am with you only a little longer. This is where you leave the nest. This is where you stand strong in your faith. I wash your feet because I want you to love the world.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
I do not die on the cross because we are a fellowship alone. I die on the cross because I love this world.
This faith, Christ says, is bigger than this fellowship of disciples gathered for what is his last supper. This new, subversive faith that scares the Romans and inspires the beggars – this faith is about the world.
This faith is about love: the kind of love that makes itself vulnerable, that kneels down with a basin of water to wash the grime of the road off sweaty, calloused feet. It is about the kind of love that feeds bread and fish to thousands, that gives sight to the blind on the Sabbath, that talks with the adulteress, befriends the outcast and suffers the little children to come unto him. This faith is about the kind of love that inspires fishermen to leave their nets, and dying criminals to turn to Jesus on the cross.
Servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
This faith is about the kind of love that spends its last hours of life with friends, a love that breaks bread and prays and says, I will take the bitter cup. It is about the kind of love that stares a painful, humiliating death in the face and says, I will submit, I will endure the agony, I will watch my mother weep because I love the children of this world, even when they do not know how to love each other – because they do not know how to love each other.
“Maundy” comes from the Old French – it means covenant, command, mandate. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, Jesus says. This love, this death that he accepts, and this resurrection that he promises, is the kind of love we must love.
While Easter is the greatest joy and truth of our faith, the dawn at the end of the night, the promise fulfilled – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – this night, Maundy Thursday, is the heart of our faith, spoken in that new commandment – and it is also the heart of our liturgy – it is a new invitation, to come to the table and share the bread and wine.
The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, given for you.
The commandment and the invitation are inextricable.
At this table, we are Peter, accepting, finally, the love of Christ – not just my feet, but my hands and head too! – we are invited to the table, and we, in turn, are asked to love as Christ loves, not any of us better than any other.
And at this table, we are Christ. We take, eat, the body of Christ, and in turn we are the body of Christ, gathered together, then broken again, and sent into the world, to love one another as Christ loves us, not any of us better than any other.
We wait, we watch, we pray, we love through this deep trinity of days. The darkness begins, but it will end with the dawn.
This reflection was given on Maundy Thursday 2017 at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Va.