A reflection on Maundy Thursday

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Christ washing Peter’s feet in the ‘Tibertius Psalter’, 12th century, London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 11v.

Out of the entire Holy Week cycle, I am particularly drawn to Holy Thursday. The English call this day Maundy Thursday, using a word derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’, meaning commandment. It is one of Christ’s words to his disciples the night before his arrest: ‘A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another’. (mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem, John 13:34)’. Unlike Good Friday which strikes the believer and the unbeliever alike with the cruelty and gore of the crucifixion and the suffering leading up to it, Commandment Thursday, as we might call it, is not only about the disclosure of that which moves the sun and the other stars, but also a time of utter despair, anxiety and sadness. Whereas Friday with its desolate landscape stares one in the eye, the Hill literally standing out like in a Flemish painting, Thursday is all about questions and hesitation: will it happen? If so, what is actually going to happen? Will I have the strength to bear it? Will we find the courage to stay by his side when the time comes? Will I keep my eyes open when I’m so opressed with sleep and the sound of the wind through the trees is so soothing? Nothing is certain this Thursday – things, as far as we care, may go either way. Anticipation is at its highest, but so is despair over the greatest question of all – what if it’s all but a lie, a delusion, a trick? We believe, or so we say, but we haven’t seen anything, and if you ask most of those watching, they will say the odds are against it. But the night is a time of rejecting the odds and keeping watch not so much against sleep, but against the slumber of the greatest of uncertainties, seminal doubt, the combustion engine of faith and the via regia of self-discovery and self-transcendence through the one who dies the day after.

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