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Thursday 18 April 2019: Maundy Thursday

The Gift of Love

Exodus 12:1-18, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35


By Anna Macham

Priest in Charge, St Philip, Camberwell


Context: a congregation on a council estate, mainly of regulars, varied in age and nationality

Aim: to explain the meaning of Maundy Thursday and its unique atmosphere within Holy Week


Sometimes Jesus talks about difficult things. And one of those is today. Divorce.

‘I catch a movement within me. Try me... Test me... Taste me...’

These are the words of the parish priest of the French village of Lansquenet in Joanne Harris’ best-selling book and film Chocolat, experiencing the stirring of desire when he’s tempted in the midst of Lenten renunciation by the exquisite mouth-watering displays in a new and alluring chocolate shop. The Chocolaterie is run by exotic newcomer to the village Vianne Rocher. It poses a threat to the strict religious observances and self-denial of the community. The priest denounces chocolate as the ultimate sin. But Vianne’s shop provides a meeting place where ‘secrets can be whispered, grievances can be aired, and dreams can be tested.’

As her controversial plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival develop and tensions increase, Vianne agrees to cook a meal for a friend, an old lady who is dying. This is the largest and most lavish meal she has ever prepared, and as the guests arrive and sit down to eat and drink, things begin to happen. The friend and her daughter are reconciled. A woman abused by her husband starts to laugh again. The alienated river people converse with the rich and powerful. The meal, though marred by the sadness of the old lady’s coming death, becomes a strange moment of peace, an intimate gathering of friends before the final showdown between Vianne and the priest. The table which Vianne has prepared so lovingly becomes a place of reconciliation and celebration.

Tonight, the focus of our attention is a special meal. Though familiar to us, tonight it has a particular resonance. This week, we accompany Jesus in his journey towards the cross. And tonight that journey gathers in intensity as we remember his betrayal and arrest, and keep watch with him in the agony and bloody sweat of Gethsemane. In the middle of these unfolding events, the Last Supper is a gift, a moment of hope, an oasis. It’s a point at which we can catch our breath before moving through the death of Good Friday into the life of Easter.

This life-giving meal is Jesus’ parting gift to his disciples, and his gift to us. Though tense, it’s a celebration (that’s why the Gloria comes back this evening), a beautiful and intimate setting in which Jesus can be with his friends one last time. He knows one of them will betray him, and that he will die, yet such is his compassion that he gives of himself, comforting and loving them to the end. In the same way that Vianne’s meal in Chocolat was a moment of grace, a final generous, loving act for a friend, so the Last Supper is a rich and extravagant expression of Jesus’ love for those closest to him. This gift of love is expressed in three ways.

First, in service. During supper, Jesus got up, took off his outer robe and, tying a towel around himself, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet. This was shocking; only slaves washed another’s feet. Yet - in an act which anticipates his cleansing death, the supreme example of love - Jesus’ gift to his disciples is to reach down, to get his hands dirty willingly in order to be of service.

Jesus invites us, unlike the priest in Chocolat, to humble ourselves and do menial, bodily tasks for our sisters and brothers. We may not be called to die for our faith, but we’re all called to find out who are the poor, the hungry and the lonely in our midst, and somehow become involved in washing their feet.

Jesus’ second gift is himself. Taking a loaf of bread, Jesus gave thanks; he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Then taking the cup, he said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor: 23-25).

Jesus gives us this meal so that we can remember him as the living Lord, who is not absent but remains faithful to his promise to be with us always. In bread and wine, he gives himself to us again and again, and we, in return, give ourselves to him.

Jesus’ third, and final, parting gift brings together the other two. ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’ (John 13:34). Recalling these words, the Church named this night ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning ‘commandment.’. But the love that Jesus is talking about is more than a command or a law; it is a gift, the free and generous gift of love that comes from the Father through Jesus to each one of his children.

So as feet are washed, we remember Christ’s example, his gift of himself and his command that we also love one another. The meal that we share gives us strength for the journey ahead, going out into darkness. It sustains us through the dereliction of Gethsemane and the agony of the Cross and beyond, until, rejoicing, we meet our risen Lord at Easter.

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