We read yesterday the excerpt from the Last Supper account in which Judas leaves to betray Jesus. Judas’ betrayal is drawn out of the Gospel and made the focus on Spy Wednesday, as a reflection on Judas’ decision to follow wealth and turn his back on Christ.
If we read the Gospel of St. John straight through, the passage of Judas leaving to betray Jesus comes in the middle of the Last Supper account. But, Judas is not the center of our story today, when we focus not on betrayal, but on the command Christ leaves us in the Last Supper.
The term Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin term “mandatum,” meaning “command” — drawn from Christ’s words to the disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
To understand this command, we need to step back to our Old Testament reading from Exodus. In this passage, the Israelites already have seen nine plagues afflict the land in which they live. Great suffering has been meted out by God on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Now, they await the promised tenth plague — the plague on the firstborn. Moses warns the Israelites of the coming plague:
“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.
But, the judgment against the Egyptians is not meant for the Israelites. To separate them, the Israelites are given instructions to mark their doorways with the blood of a sacrificial lamb:
They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it …The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
The Israelites are given clear instructions for how they must prepare the sacrificial lamb — the lamb of Passover, that will enable death to pass over them.
Jesus presents Himself in Jerusalem for Passover, and at the Last Supper, to be this sacrificial lamb for all time, to mark us in His blood, that death may forever pass us by. And, just as the Israelites had to prepare the sacrificial lamb, so too does Jesus prepare Himself — and us — for the cross.
Jesus institutes the Eucharist — ordering us to take His Body and Blood in remembrance of Him — in making him present. This is our primary way of stepping into the Real Presence of Christ.
But, before the Last Supper, knowing he soon will be betrayed and die, Jesus teaches us how to walk with Him. He takes off his outer clothing, wraps a towel around his waist, kneels before each disciple, and gently, lovingly washes their feet. Hours before He is to face an excruciating, disgraceful death, Jesus chooses to pass His time washing the feet of His disciples.
He does not do this for His own sake. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples to teach them, and us, how we must love and serve when He is gone: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
This is our calling: to rise by kneeling, to live in humility, serving and loving those around us.
It is a powerful and beautiful lesson. But, it is not simply a lesson for us to passively receive. It is a lesson taught not only that we might learn it, but so we will live it.
When the Israelites prepared to eat the Passover meal, they were told to do so in a state of readiness:
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.
So too are we called to come to the eternal Passover meal, to the Last Supper, in a state of readiness. We are not here just to partake. We are here to receive, so that we may act. And this is the commandment Christ gives us:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
To love one another sounds easy enough. But, tomorrow, we will see what Love looks like. We will see it in the lash. We will see it in the crown of thorns. We will see it in the bloody footsteps of the Via Dolorosa. We will see it poured out in the Blood of Christ atop Golgotha.
Tomorrow we will walk that walk with Christ. But today, we are called to kneel with Him, and recommit ourselves to humility, to selfless love and sacrifice. We must prepare ourselves, for The Way will be long and sorrowful.
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.