Homily for Maundy Thursday, Year B, 2009
(using Year A texts)
Thursday, April 9th, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 13:1-17,31b-35
You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.
A new commandment, a new mandate, mandatum novum, from which we get the term “maundy”: Love one another as I have loved you. As he knelt before them and washed their feet, they received a glimpse of the kind of offering he was making, for within a short time the one who washed their feet would have his arms stretch wide on the cross in such an embrace as to embrace the whole world. As he knelt before them that evening, and later, as he hung on a cross, Our Lord, unfolded before his disciples and before the world the nature of his kingship and the glory of his kingdom – a kingdom in which glory is not manifest in acts of power but in servant-hood and self-offering. Yet, even as Jesus explained it to them, it is unlikely that they fully understood it. They hoped to see his glory, but did they know what to look for?
Consider the opening verses of John, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us… and we beheld his glory.” Perhaps, for those of us who read the gospel at a distance of two millennia, and with a view of the entire gospel portrait, it is easier for us to behold his glory in his gracious self-offering. But did the early disciples recognize his glory as he was in their midst? He came to his own and his own knew him not. The kind of glory that he exhibited at once confused and confounded them. Do we count the kneeling of a master at the feet of his followers as an act of glory? And can we count a king nailed to a cross as a sign of glory? And yet, in this gospel of St. John, a gospel that above all others speaks of the glorified Christ, we meet the Christ in his deepest humility and is this encounter with the God who humbles himself at the feet of his own followers, and ultimately humbles himself to death, even death on a cross, that we behold his glory. It is in the condescension of the Word who was with God from the beginning that we behold his glory. If Luke locates Jesus’ lowliness in his birth a stable, and if Mark locates his lowliness in his identity as the son of a carpenter who is derided by his hometown family and friends, then John locates his lowliness in his act of self-abrogation, kneeling before his disciples, as he becomes the servant of his servants.
It then behooves us to remember whose servants we are. We serve the king who served others. Each Maundy Thursday is a time in which we clergy are to recall that we are called not to be served but to serve, and then by extension a reminder is offered to all the faithful, that as it has been done unto them so, too, they should do unto others. The tradition of this day is that the clergy would wash the feet of the congregation. Indeed this tradition was carried into the Reformation and early Anglicanism when Queen Elizabeth I, herself, would wash and kiss the feet of her subjects. The intimacy of foot washing, which was rooted in the ancient tradition of a servant washing the dirty sandaled feet of a traveler welcomed into a home has begun to give way in many places to a modern equivalent, the washing of each others’ hands. In a world in which we are afraid to touch and even shake hands, in a world frightened by SARS and C-Dif, and so many other frightening conditions that are passed by close contact, close proximity, and touch, the hands take on the symbolism held by feet in antiquity. Hands are in constant need of cleansing in the way that feet were in ancient times. It is an act of service, and indeed personal risk to touch and wash the hands of another. I believe it is what our Lord would do if he were amongst us this day.
We as clergy take up this task to remind ourselves whose servant we are. Our liturgy also reminds each of us, as baptized Christians, that we share in this sacred ministry of servant-hood. Ambrose of Milan, a late fourth century bishop, describes the baptismal liturgy in his church, in which after baptism each new disciple participates in a foot-washing ceremony done by the bishop, seemingly suggesting that the most senior minister of the church demonstrates that in our baptism we take up a servant-hood ministry. Consider also what we learn from another church father, Aphrahat, a great East Syrian Church Father of the 4th century (virtually unknown to us in the West), who writes “Our redeemer washed the feet of his disciples on the night of the paschal sacrifice, (which is), the mystery of baptism. You should know, my beloved, it was on this night that our redeemer gave the true baptism.”(Demonstration XII.10).
This is the glory of God, the glory into which we are baptized, to serve not because it attains for us the kingdom, but because in the kingdom we can do no other. It is in the very nature of God to serve and care and offer himself for the sake of his creation. Thus, it is in the very nature of his kingdom that we should live out our Christian lives as a servant-people, caring and offering ourselves for others. If, therefore humanity is glorified in Christ crucified, to be in Christ, to partake of his nature, is to serve not because it is the right thing to do but because we can do no other.
The forces of the world will tell us that there are all kinds of things that we are made for such as the accumulation of wealth and power. There will be others that try to convince us that it is impossible for human beings to escape the foibles that make us oh so sinful. We have impulses toward unfair and unhealthy competition with our brothers and sisters, impulses that lead us to take up arms, impulses to hurt others to save ourselves, impulses to place ourselves above all others. There are those that would have us believe, pessimistically or even nihilistically, that these impulses can never be curbed within humanity. This is true of our old nature. But under the banner of the servant-king, the glorified Christ, we can claim a new commandment, a new mandate, a new Maundy, one into which we are growing day by day in our life in Christ. Love one another as I have loved you. It is the way that is made open to us through the self-offering of our Lord, it is the way of love. It is what we are made for, designed for, built for. It is who we are destined to be in our glorified humanity, the humanity that is offered to us in the incarnation of God in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In that moment when Jesus wrapped a towel around himself and gently took Peter’s feet within his hands and washed away the grime of the world, Peter could not understand the glory of God being revealed to him. But when his time would come be called to lead the sheep, he we would come to understand. When his time came that he would be led to his own cross he would understand. And as we take each other’s hands and gently pour water, wash and dry, and serve each other, we behold His Glory, the Glory of the Lord, not in demonstrations of power and force but in an act of loving and gentle humility.
Text copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves