Every year I get get up here and try to explain Maundy Thursday, but I never even scratch the surface. I don’t necessarily feel bad about that, as Maundy Thursday, the first one that is, produced more to talk about than perhaps any other single day in the life of Jesus, it’s as theologically rich as you can get.
We begin, because that day began, with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus. We watch as the Passover meal is prepared, as the disciples gather, as the Eucharist is instituted, as Judas slips out (making Judas the first person to leave Mass early, by the way). We get to listen in on a long night of teaching, or prayer, and then we meet up with our heroes in the Garden of Gethsemane to watch with Christ. The temptations, the betrayal, the trial and imprisonment, it’s really too much to cover and it’s almost too much for our hearts to bear.
I think that’s why teaching Maundy Thursday can sometimes be a fool’s errand. Perhaps Maundy Thursday needs to be experienced rather than taught. The world experienced some of what Maundy Thursday means when last year Pope Francis caused quite a stir when he washed the feet of the homeless and prisoners, female prisoners at that! The Pope was characteristically unmoved by his critics.
“Jesus never tires of loving,” Francis told the 300 inmates gathered in the chapel of Rome’s Rebibbia prison, famed as the place where Pope St. John Paul II visited in 1983 to forgive his attempted assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.
“He loves each one of us, to the point that he gave his life for us,” Francis said on Thursday. “Jesus never tires of loving, forgiving, embracing us.” The pontiff quoted a passage from the Gospel that says God remembers and loves “even those forgotten by their mothers.”1
“There is a Latin maxim – lex orandi, lex credendi – literally, “the law of praying, the law of believing,” and what it means is: If you want to know what we believe, watch how we pray and how we worship. That translates perfectly to what we do here tonight, the experience we are having and about to have. What we do here tonight means that we not only want to believe in things with our minds but also to believe on things with our hearts, to live those things in our bodies and souls.
But what we do here tonight must translate further, into what we do when we leave this place. If the world is to know what it is that we believe, than our prayer and worship must take us out into the world in service to others. None of us are the Pope and few if any of us will ever wash the feet of prisoners, but we can all be witnesses to the love of Christ. We can all do the work of Christ, humbling ourselves as He humbled Himself, never tiring of loving, forgiving, and embracing those who are forgotten, left behind, in need of the love of Christ.