Why “Maundy” Thursday?

Thursday of Holy Week is called “Maundy Thursday.” The name “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum,” or “command,” and is the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” – in English, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” Jesus, speaking to his disciples, continues, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

Jesus says these words during his final meal with his disciples. For this reason, worship on Maundy Thursday is almost always a communion service and is, indeed, often used as an occasional on which to reflect on the nature and import of the Lord’s Supper. Which is a tad ironic. For while there is indeed a “last supper” recorded in John’s Gospel, there is no scene of the institution of the “Lord’s Supper.”

In the other three accounts, at Jesus’ final meal with his disciples – which is, importantly, a Passover meal – he offers them instructions about how to commemorate this occasion and, indeed, his life and ministry, by instituting a new meal, even a new Passover meal. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus instead washes the feet of his disciples in an unusual display of service, and perhaps even servitude (which is why Peter objects) and then commands them to do the same. Discipleship, in other words, is about service, about caring for others. And having set this example for them, he then adds a new commandment to the Ten with which they were most familiar: to love one another.

Which raises an interesting question: can you command someone to love another person? Isn’t love beyond commands, discipline, the human will, or even logic?

Not according to Jesus. For when he commands his disciples to love one another, he does not use the Greek word eros that captures passionate love (from whence our word “erotic” stems) or the Greek phileo of familial endearment and loyalty (the root of Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love”). Rather, when Jesus commands his disciples to love another, he chooses the Greek work agape, the self-sacrificing love of a parent, the promise of an ongoing and permanent welcome.

Jesus command his disciples – then and now – to act in a loving way. To care for and serve each other as he has cared for and served them. This kind of love – because is more about behavior than emotion – you can command.

And here, perhaps, is where the story John tells and the stories the other evangelists tell come together in our worship practice, as on Maundy Thursday we come together to remember Jesus’ sacrificial love for us – and, indeed, God’s enormous sacrifice to witness the death of one child to save all the other children of God – as perhaps best captured in the pouring out of his life that we remember in the Lord’s Supper in order that we might be encouraged by God’s promises and inspired and equipped to love one another.

It’s an important night and worship service in the church years, as it draws us deeply into the heart of the biblical story, and so I hope you have a chance to celebrate it with your local congregation. But wherever you may be this day, and however you may spend it, know this: God continues to love and bless us that we may in turn love and bless each other and, indeed, the whole world God loves so much. With that in mind, I pray you have a blessed Maundy Thursday.


Post image: Simon Ushakov, “Last Supper,” 1685.