Today is Maundy Thursday among Western Christians. It is the day we recall the experience of Jesus Christ with his Apostles in the Upper Room on the evening before his death. Because they were gathered there to celebrate the Passover Seder together, we mainly associate the day with the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
But the name for this day is derived from something else that happened in that Upper Room. The English word Maundy in the name for this day of Holy Week is derived from the Latin word mandatum, the first word of the phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ("I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."), the statement by Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John 13:34 by which Jesus explained the significance of his action of washing the feet of the Apostles.
What kind of love has to be commanded? Obviously, the kind of love Jesus expects us to show for one another, which is a reflection of the kind of love Jesus shows for us. We sometimes call it "Love Divine" because it is the kind of love that is natural for God. It is not so natural for humans, so we have to be made conscious of the importance of it. We have to be commanded.
I once heard a sermon in which the preacher, in speaking about the Great Commandment, referred to Jesus as "the Commander." It is intriguing to think of Jesus Christ as "the Commander."
An analogy formed in my mind from my experience sailing on Elissa, the official Tall Ship of Texas. Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland by Alexander Hall & Company. She carries nineteen sails covering over one-quarter of an acre in surface area. Her home port is Galveston, Texas and from there she sails from time to time during the year, usually on day sails, with a crew of dedicated and sturdy volunteers.
Originally, her crew consisted of about five or six. These days, the ship's crew is made up of about twenty-five. Twenty-four crew members sail her and one crew member is the cook. The Captain of the ship is usually brought in from some other part of the country to command the crew. He stands above the deck in a place where he can see where the ship is headed, where the crew members are deployed, and the position of all the sails. From that vantage point, he shouts commands such as "on the main," "on the fore," "batten down the hatches," and "come about." After the command is given, the crew members responsible for carrying it out shout it back to the commander, indicating that they not only heard the command but are carrying it out. This amazing litany of command and response onboard a massive sailing vessel makes it possible for the ship to sail on course and safely reach her destination.
Jesus Christ, our Commander, gives the command to love one another just as he has loved us. The response he awaits is for us not only to let him know we have heard the command, but to carry it out. "If you know these things," he promises, "you are blessed if you do them" (John 13:17).
Although it is a very long way from the image of Jesus bending down to wash the feet of his crew to the image of a naval commander shouting instructions to his, I believe there are many similarities when it comes to fulfilling a mission. Jesus issued the Great Commandment with a clear vision from a unique vantage point. The cooperation and welfare of his crew on their journey and safe arrival at a particular destination were his primary concerns. His own obedience to the mission was an inspiration to those from he sought obedience. Teamwork, cooperation, and oneness are necessary to complete the mission of a sailing vessel as well as the mission of Jesus Christ. His Great Commandment is still essential in carrying out his Great Commission.
If we want the world to believe in our Savior, we have to learn to fulfill his command. The way his love is lived out among his followers in word and action is our most authentic and believable witness. If doing for one another what he has done for us were so simple, he would never have put it into the form of a command.
Now that we know these things…
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church