I remember my excitement as a child, anticipating Easter Sunday. I never much cared about the days before it. To me, it was all about the pretty new dress, and the basket filled with candy and stuffed pink bunnies. After I became a Christian and understood what Easter Sunday was really celebrating, I am sorry to say that I still didn’t think much about the days before it. I knew that Jesus died on the cross, but the main thing to me, the only thing, really, was the fact that He didn’t stay in the grave. I don’t in any way intend to minimize that incredible fact, but in the past few years, I have become more and more interested in the days before Easter Sunday, beginning with the oddly named day that is today: Maundy Thursday.
The name “maundy” is derived from the first word in the Latin translation of John 13:34, which means “mandate” or “commandment”: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” In English: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
In that phrase, “even as I have loved you,” there is an important distinction. It could easily be read as, “I loved you, so you should love others.” But if we read it that way, we miss the true meaning. It is more accurately read this way: “love each other in the same way that I have loved you.”
Just prior to giving us this new commandment, and in the dark hours that followed, Jesus showed us exactly what He meant by acting out His love for His disciples in truly astonishing ways.
As He and His disciples celebrated the Passover meal, which we now know was His “last supper,” Jesus took on a role that was reserved for the lowliest of servants. He “got up from supper, and laid aside His garments, and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” (John 13:4,5)
Try to picture this if you can. He had to remove His outer garments and wrap Himself in a towel–exposing Himself in their presence. Then, He literally knelt at the feet of His disciples–the ultimate act of humility. Even to have a friend or family member kneel at my feet would be an incredibly honoring, almost embarrassing experience. I can’t begin to imagine the one true God, half-clothed, kneeling in front of me and taking my stinky, dirty, feet in His beautiful hands! It’s overwhelming to think about.
The even more stunning part of this act? Jesus washed all twelve disciples’ feet. All twelve. Not just the feet of the eleven true followers, but the feet of the traitor, Judas Iscariot, as well. It was not that Jesus didn’t know better: “For He knew the one who was betraying Him” (John 13:11). Even though He knew full well that Judas had not truly received Him and would soon, that very night, hand Him over to those that would torture and crucify Him, still He bent at those feet, caked as they were with dirt and mud from walking around unpaved streets in flimsy sandals, and washed them clean.
As a fallen, silly human, I find myself picking and choosing who I want to love, based largely on who I find to be lovable. I don’t particularly want to love those who have betrayed me, lied about me, talked about me behind my back. I most definitely don’t want to expose and humble myself for their benefit. But if I take Jesus’ mandate seriously, His commandment, that is precisely what I must do.
Not only do I prefer to choose who to love, I want to choose how to love them. I want to be on equal footing, to receive reciprocal affection, and when I don’t get it, I get grumpy. Though this is not exclusive to the marriage relationship, it seems to be the most obvious in that context. I don’t necessarily want to act loving toward Pete when he’s not acting loving toward me. I expect certain behavior from him, and I let him know when it’s lacking. When I behave this way, as a wife, a mother, a friend, sister, or daughter, I am not even close to loving as Jesus loves.
After this humble, loving act of service, Jesus and His disciples celebrated the true meaning of the Passover. In the same way that the blood of the perfect lamb over their doorways caused the angel of death to literally pass over the households of the Jews (and the believing foreigners among them), the blood of Jesus, the Perfect Lamb, covers those who choose Him now, sparing them from death. Though they did not understand it at the time, Jesus demonstrated this truth with the disciples when He broke the bread (as His body would be broken) and poured the wine (as His blood would be spilled) and shared it with each one of them–again, including Judas. If we will receive the truth of His sacrifice–His broken body and spilled blood–we also receive the atonement, the forgiveness, that His sacrifice accomplished, and we are spared from the consequences of our imperfection and sin.
Later that same night, in the Garden of Gethsemane (which literally means ‘olive press,’ and there’s a lot to say about that, but this post is already really long, so I believe I’ll save it!), Jesus grieved so intensely over the weight of our sin and His upcoming separation from the Father on the cross, He sweat drops of blood (which, incidentally, has been proven to be medically plausible–not that I need doctors to tell me the Bible’s true).
Finally, Judas arrived in the garden with Roman soldiers, chief priests, and Pharisees, and Jesus was taken away to face those who would condemn and kill Him. The most beautiful moment to me: “So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They answered Him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He said to them, ‘I am He.'”
Knowing all that He would suffer, having already spent hours anticipating it with enormous grief, Jesus did not shrink back. In fact, He stepped forward. He stepped forward to receive the incomprehensible suffering that was necessary to achieve for us our salvation, all out of His incomprehensible love for us.
That’s why Maundy Thursday matters.