1st APR 2021
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance. A participant in Morning Prayer earlier today asked the origin of the word, maundy. As you perhaps already know, the word does not have any meaning in and of itself and is only used in conjunction with this day. It is one of those exotic Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our Church. And, as I explained this morning, scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – commandment – which appears in today’s beautiful and rich text from the Gospel of John: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
As you may also know, it is the custom or tradition in many churches -- including the Roman Catholic and Anglican -- for the priests of a given diocese to gather with their bishop on Maundy Thursday or some other time during Holy Week, for the annual renewal of Priestly Vows and the Blessing of the Holy Oils. Sadly, because of distances, I have never been able to participate in these services in the Diocese in Europe, because they are typically held in far-off cathedrals. But this year of course, the Renewal of Priestly Vows took place online, and I was there. At least the electronic particles representing me were there.
Bishop David, our Suffragan Bishop, preached a lovely and memorable sermon at this year’s service, reflecting among other things upon the events of the past year and our common yearning for a return to normalcy in our families and church lives. “There are three things,” said Bishop David reflecting on his theme of family, “which everyone has a right to expect from family: namely, love; forgiveness; and dinner.” The last of which, I suppose, is an outward expression of the first two. It occurred to me that Bishop David’s observation of family life pertains to church life as well.
Love, forgiveness, and dinner. That after all is what the Last Supper was all about. And still today, if we do church right, we feel and know God’s forgiveness and that of our community. And, in sharing sustenance and forgiveness, we come to know God’s love and learn to share it with those who are like us as well as with those who are different from us. And, so we are fed.
Among the many motifs of our Maundy Thursday liturgies this season is of course that of Eucharist or Holy Communion -- something sadly missing from our common life since the appearance of the pandemic over a year ago. But as Bishop Robert, our Diocesan Bishop, has also remarked on more than one occasion during this time of quarantine and lockdown, “We may perforce find ourselves fasting from Eucharist these days but nevertheless we continue to feast on the Word.” Feasting on the Word of God, that is. And that is where we find ourselves this evening.
For, we share this evening the Lord’s word or commandment of love; the commandment after which this very day is named. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus to his disciples, “that you love one another.” From mandatum to maundy. It is as simple and as difficult as the example of service he gives us in the Washing of Feet. This new commandment of our Lord is in fact an apt summary of what this day is about. Of what the Gospel life is all about. And, Jesus’ commandment to love – as old as it is -- is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time – or any time.
The command to love is after all always new -- as new as love itself always proves to be. They say that no one ever tires of hearing the words, I love you. Love is in fact the one thing in life which seemingly never grows old and hackneyed. No one of course knows who came up with the first words of some primitive ur-language hundreds of thousands of years ago. But I suspect that besides common words such as hand, face, tree, and food, was also the earliest expression millennia ago of those three English words -- which are by the way one word in Hungarian, szeretlek -- I love you. And, as far as I can tell from observation, the words show no sign of going out of fashion with the younger generation of today.
No more than forgiveness and dinner will ever go out of fashion. So, this holy Thursday -- this Maundy Thursday -- we feast on God’s word or commandment of love. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord, we say with the Psalmist. Sample and taste the love of God. The commandment of this Maundy Thursday – love one another -- applies equally well to yesterday as today; to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come.
It is a lesson -- or mandate -- we as followers of Christ dare not forget during these difficult and troubling times when we are also mandated to, in a sense, avoid each other, to keep our distance. We have indeed become used to new commandments and mandates these days. Wash your hands. Keep two meters apart. Wear a face mask. Stay home. It can be a bit hard to remember the most important mandate of all, Jesus’ commandment to love; to love even when hunkered down in fear of the other. And, to serve.
That is our challenge.
It is sometimes only in reflecting upon the things we seemingly no longer have that we ultimately find, and rejoice in, all that we still possess. And sometimes it is only the empty human heart which ultimately has room for the abundance of God’s presence and love. So, this is no time to forget the newest and oldest and most important commandment of all. This season, my friends, keep the one law that never changes yet remains forever new. “I give you a new commandment,” says our Lord, “that you love one another.” Love, forgiveness, dinner. What more could anyone ask? Bon Appetit.
Or, as they say here in Hungary, Jó étvágyat….
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs