the eleventh commandment

Hidden away in the journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week to the great celebration of Pentecost is the crucial evening of Maundy Thursday. The day is so named because of the new commandment proclaimed by Jesus on this concluding night of his ministry: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In Latin the new commandment is “Maundatum Novum”. Hence Maundy Thursday is literally ‘Commandment Thursday’.

In this new commandment the life and teachings of Jesus are inextricably linked with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not uncommon to find congregations and preachers who place a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teachings of sacrificial love than on the cosmic impact of the crucified and risen Lord. Similarly, there are those for whom the earthly ministry of Jesus is little more than prelude to the central events of the Triduum (the “three holy days” of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday). But on Maundy Thursday Jesus’ radical teachings about love are given embodiment in his life-giving sacrificial death: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). This is the church’s “eleventh commandment”. When asked, however, many who make up the church are hard pressed to recall this new law from memory.

We have been growing in our practice of marking Maundy Thursday in hopes that we will not forget the eleventh commandment. We recall the little protestant community in Le Chambon, France that remarkably hid and saved many Jewish refugees during the Second World War. When asked why they had risked their lives in this way many in the village spoke of the lifelong impact of the words carved into the entrance way of their small church: “Love one another” (“Lest Innocent Blood By Shed” by Philip Hallie, Harper Perennial, 1979). We dare to imagine that our simple Maundy Thursday meal with Eucharist and foot-washing might play a crucial role in forming a congregational memory of this central rule of the kingdom come, God’s will done on earth: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We are slowly becoming more at ease with the foot-washing rite that is the heart of the new commandment. Jesus gives the law to his church only after getting down on his hands and knees in humility to scrub tired, dirty feet. One year we invited two members of our congregation to testify to their experience of this rite in other congregations. One told of living in a L’arche community among peoples of varying disabilities where the ritual of foot-washing is practiced at every weekly community worship service. Another told of growing up in a Mennonite community where she passed from adolescence into adulthood on the Maundy Thursday when she was invited to wash one of the older women’s feet and to be washed in turn.

In recent years, however, we have come to realize who can teach us to wash and be washed without feeling self-conscious. Our children are eager to practice washing and drying feet in advance of Maundy Thursday and to be our leaders in the ancient rite. They move to the bowls and invite the adults to follow their lead. They are not shy. They undertake their ministry seriously and with evident enthusiasm. In that moment our awkwardness with the recovery of Jesus’ servant ministry is gone. And we pray that this humble practice will be mirrored in a congregation that is learning to overcome the awkwardness of loving one another as Christ has loved us.

                                                                       (from "Telling Time" by Edwin Searcy)

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