If there were one season of the year that marked us Christians out as ‘weird’, it would be Lent through to Easter. That difference between us and the rest of the UK was particularly hammered home this year back at the start of March, when SNP Member of Parliament Carol Monaghan attended a Commons select committee meeting after having attended a service to mark Ash Wednesday. She showed up in Westminster, still bearing the ashes on her forehead, and uproar went forth amongst politicians and the media, believing she was making a political statement about the place of faith in society.
Perhaps, even more odd, though, than sporting an ashen cross is what we do here in this service this evening; the foot-washing, the stripping of the altar, even the name of this day is odd. What on earth is a Maundy Thursday when it’s at home? What does this whole thing mean?
|Bowl and cloth for washing of feet|
It’s all connected. Even back to those ashes we received six weeks ago, reminding us of our own mortality; that we were formed from the dust of the ground, and that there we will return. Today, before Christ’s death, we hear the reading of Christ’s will; his will and testament. His mandate to us. That’s where – it is believed – the name Maundy comes from; the Mandate of Christ that we heard him leave his disciples with in our Gospel reading. His new commandment.
To love each other.
It is, of course, the simplest of all commands. But… I have misquoted.
To love each other as Christ as has loved us.
It is the most difficult of all commandments.
Does today’s foot-washing embarrass you? Probably not in exactly the same way it embarrassed Peter when Christ turned to wash his feet. But there’s something similar. For Peter was not just worried about the social status of this act – I’m sure you’ve all heard about the master-slave relationship elements here – but, foot-washing was – apart from that – a personal, if not entirely private task. Imagine, perhaps, someone offering to wash your hands for you, after a trip to the toilet, and you might be verging on his reaction somewhat. It’s odd, unnerving.
There is another element, though. Another person we, and Christ’s contemporaries, reserve the caressing of our hands and feet for; our lover. Peter knew what the implications of this act were. He knew how it would look to those on the outside, and the boundaries that were being crossed. The whole thing was too intimate for Peter to deal with.
But this was the example Christ gave to his disciples to show the love they should have for each other. This isn’t a hand-wringing, “why can’t we all get along?” love. It’s not a supercilious smile, head-cocked to one-side, pat-on-the-back, “there, there” love. It’s a love that actually mourns with those who mourn, and honestly rejoices with those who rejoice. It is a love that (as we will hear more of tomorrow) is willing to lay down its life. It is personal, and it is intimate. And I’m having difficulty not making this sound sexual, because it is the love between those devoted to each other. It is – and I’m sure I do not need to state, apart from the sexual aspect – the love of lovers. It is scandalous. And it caused the disciples to balk when Christ showed it to them.
It causes us to do so too. This love that we are to reach for – to strive for – that is Christ’s Maundy Mandate to us is not easy. But it’s what, according to Christ, we should be known for. “Love one another, as I have loved you. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
Yes, Christians are supposed to be ‘weird’. But not in our judgements, or piety, or failings in our sense of humour. In our love. How are we known as Christ’s disciples today? By complaining about Easter eggs not mentioning Easter on their packaging? By piously reminding those around us where their standards fall short of God? Here’s the mandate; here’s how Christ commands we be singled-out and recognised – by our love for each other.
And, leaving his disciples, and us, with that commandment, with his will and testament, Christ goes to the garden to prepare his body for death. And we come onto the second of tonight’s symbols; the stripping of the altar. There is, as I mentioned earlier, a link back to the foot-washing even here. For it is not just you, your servant or your lover who will wash your feet; there is another. Those who prepare you for burial will strip you, and wash you also.
As Christ prepares himself for the cross, so we prepare the church and ourselves. In the garden, Christ strips away the last vestiges of his doubt and his fear and accepts the cup that is being offered. At the end of tonight’s service, we, too, will prepare the body of Christ for death. The altar – the church – symbolises Christ, and each one of us. And as we remove the altar-coverings, the vestments, the candles, and all the paraphernalia we see around us now, not only does this represent the preparation of Christ’s body for burial, but it also prepares us to join him in his death at that cross tomorrow, stripping away our outer-layers of pride, of judgement, of anger, of everything, until only these three things remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. Intimate, scandalous, Christ-like love; not only our mandate, but our forehead-mark.