Maundy Thursday marks a turning point, not only for Holy Week, but also for the way in which Christianity functions in the world. For quite some time now, I have been struggling to pinpoint just where Christianity went wrong. I confess that for years now, I’ve conveniently pointed to the year 312, when the emperor Constantine formally adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is a convenient scapegoat, partly because we can point our fingers and say, There, right there the followers of a passionate, non-violent, radical resister, to the domination of empires, right there by imperial fiat, these rag tag communities of non-violent resisters were transformed into a new kind of empire; an empire that would go on to create the Doctrine of Discovery, justify violence, and plunder the planet so that it could dominate the power structures of countries, nations and lands all over the globe. Right there, with Constantine, that’s where it all went wrong.
If only this were that simple, then all we’d need to do is dress Constantine up as a scapegoat and drive him from our midst. After all, Holy Week, of all the days in the Church year, Holy Week provides so many opportunities for scapegoating. However, despite the reality that Christianity was indeed joined in unholy matrimony with the forces of empire by Constantine, the impetus for this coupling can be seen in the betrayal of LOVE which occurred on the very night which Christians commemorate each and every Maundy Thursday.
Now, before you pounce upon another scapegoat, let me assure you that I’m not pointing to the betrayal of Judas Iscariot as the one responsible for Christianity’s getting into bed with the domination forces of his day. Sadly, there are more betrayers on Maundy Thursday than we can ever begin to count. For it is our focus which betrays us. It is our focus which betrays the teaching and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We who call ourselves Christian, and so many who went before us, touting their love for Jesus, we took our eyes off the “maundy” and there began our betrayal of everything Jesus lived his life to teach us.
When I ask people what Maundy Thursday is all about, the majority of good, faithful, followers of Jesus respond with sentences which include the phrase “last supper.” Which is of course correct. The anonymous gospel storytellers we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have provided the followers of Jesus with various accounts of the Passover meal which Jesus shared with his followers shortly before he was executed by the Empire for disturbing the Pax Romana. Out of those different accounts, the followers of Jesus adopted ways of remembering which were ritualized. Sadly, only one of these Last Supper rituals developed into a sacrament. Even more tragically, all too often this particular sacrament is “celebrated” as a sacrifice, complete with a scapegoat, or should I say a sacrificial lamb, whose blood is spilled in the minds and hearts of worshippers again and again and again.
Imperial Christians, that’s us, we who enjoy privileges established by the domination forces of various empires which have used Christianity as a sort of opiate of the masses, we have been betrayed by generations who have fixed their gaze upon the myth of redemptive violence. Indeed, lest we fall into the trap of scapegoating those who have gone before us, let us also remember our very own betrayal, for we too have fixed our gaze upon the myth of redemptive violence and we taken our focus off the “maundy” of that long ago supper, “maundy” from the Latin word for “commandment.” As the story is told, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: LOVE one another. And you’re to LOVE one another the way I have LOVED you. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly LOVE one another.”
That we should “LOVE one another” is not a new commandment. There were many before Jesus, and many who came after Jesus who commanded, advised, encouraged, implored, and even begged us to, “love one another.” What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that we are to love one another the way that Jesus loved us. Which begs the question: How exactly did Jesus love? According to the story, which is told on Maundy Thursday, Jesus didn’t just tell those gathered around the meal to “LOVE one another” Jesus embodied LOVE in a way which demonstrated the way LOVE works in the world. The anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John puts it this way: “Jesus realized that the hour had come for him to pass form this world to Abba God. He had always loved his own in this world, but now he showed how perfect this love was. The Devil had already convinced Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. So during supper, Jesus—knowing that God had put all things into his own hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God—rose from the table, took off his clothes and wrapped a towel around his waist. He then poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and dry them with the towel that was around his waist. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said, “Rabbi, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you?” Jesus answered, “You don’t realize what I AM doing right now, but later you’ll understand.”
By washing the feet of followers, Jesus humbles himself and provides an example of service that exemplifies how we are to carry out his new commandment that we love one another. And so, on Maundy Thursday, some churches participate in the ritual of washing one another’s feet as a way of embodying Jesus’ new commandment. But let’s face it, a ritual only sporadically embodied once a year doesn’t really have the same power as a ritual which became a sacrament and is now embodied again, and again, and again. There are very few people in the world who would identify Christians as foot washers. Christians are however identified as consumers of the body and blood of the Lamb of God.
Two rituals were born at Jesus’ last supper, but only one became a sacrament. Our focus upon ritual sacrifice would not be such a betrayal of Jesus’ new commandment if it were not for the way in which doctrines of atonement have cast the sacrament of the meal, the eucharist, Holy Communion as a sort of commemoration of a violent bargain struck with a violent god. I am well aware, that Communion can be and is often celebrated as a thanksgiving, or celebration of LOVE, but far too many of us have focussed our gaze on the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” as the ultimate scapegoat, the divinely ordained blood sacrifice. I can’t but help asking what ought to be an obvious question: What might christianity have become with a focus on foot washing? Could foot washers have embodied Jesus’ new commandment in such a way as to create a more humble christianity; a christianity less palatable to empire?
We will never know the answer to this question. But we can ask it anew. What if we 21st century followers of Jesus, shifted our focus away from the myth of redemptive violence and toward the embodiment of LOVE? Imagine if you will, a community humble enough to wash one another’s feet, sitting down to a holy meal. What might we become if we allow the story of the last supper help us to understand that it is our focus and not Judas that betrays Jesus? As foot-washers instead of scapegoaters, might we learn new ways of embodying Jesus’ new commandment to LOVE one another? Might shifting our focus help us to see new ways of being LOVE in the world?
All things considered; I can’t see the ritual of foot washing becoming a sacrament any time soon. Not unless we are prepared to imagine what foot washing might look like here and now, in our day, in our time. Imagine all the opportunities a shift in our focus might reveal. What might Jesus’ new commandment look like in the face of the empires in which we are entwined? Can you see yourself embodying LOVE as you do whatever you can, whenever you can to tend to the needs of your neighbour, to care for even the betrayers you encounter, or to humbly open yourself to ridicule for the sake of LOVE?
We know all too well, that the myth of redemptive violence is alive and well. Our world is rife with the impacts of violence. But it is not just out there in the world that violence lives. It is in here (within me). For I too am compelled by the alure of violence as a solution. Violence is alive in me, and it lives in you.
So, as we anticipate the events we will commemorate tomorrow, Good Friday, I hope we can see that it is violence which will kill LOVE, and more importantly, it is LOVE which dies not just on Good Friday, but each and every time that violence triumphs. Whether LOVE is crucified on a cross, or in the streets of Ukraine, or the jungles of Myanmar, or in the darkest reaches of corporate empires, or in the palatial homes of the rich and powerful, LOVE is crucified over and over again. LOVE dies, and it is LOVE which lies in the grave of our being, in need of resurrection.
But death will not have the final word. For we do not live as ones without hope. LOVE dies. LOVE will rise. LOVE will live again. So, let us remember Jesus’ last supper. Let us remember, trusting that there nothing in heaven or on Earth which can separate us from the LOVE which is DIVINITY. May the power of the ONE which allures us into LOVE, shift our focus so that we can see beyond the violence, beyond the death of LOVE, to the resurrection of LOVE as we learn to embody Jesus’ new commandment to LOVE one another.
View the full Maundy Thursday Worship Video below