Memory and mandate

A meditation on Maundy Thursday

by Ken Sehested

Under the sway of Easter bunnies, chocolate binges, and spring fashion sales, Holy Week and Resurrection Morning observances have shed almost all connections to the volatile political events in Jerusalem leading up to Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the city.

The season of Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem was the fevered occasion of Passover. Passover was the story of the Hebrews’ miraculous escape from Egyptian bondage. Passover’s observance in first century Palestine was like President’s Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day all rolled up into one. Judea was again in bondage, this time subjugated by Roman occupation. Jews from around the countryside streamed into Jerusalem for reasons of piety mixed with nationalist fervor. Rome ramped up its troop level every year at this time.

Acts of terrorist assassination escalated during the Passover observance. Some Jewish Zealots—known as the Sicarii , armed with sicae, small daggers that could be hidden in their cloaks—attacked both Roman leaders and members of the Jewish Temple elite who collaborated with their Roman overlords.

Remember what the people shouted as Jesus, mounted on a donkey—an intentional act of satire against the assumptions of military prowess conveyed by the war horse—paraded into the city to be met by cheering crowds who laid palm branches in the street, a common symbol of victory, peace, and triumph among ancient Near East populations.

“Hosanna,” cried the people lining the parade route. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our Lord! Blessed be the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna.”

These shouts were thinly-veiled expressions of political subversion, with the memory of the mighty King David brought to bear against the Roman Caesar Augustus’ chokehold on the nation.

The word “hosanna” isn’t merely a pious expression. It’s not like saying “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” or “Thank-you-Jesus!” The word “hosanna” means “come and liberate us!” It expresses the hope for martial intervention, for achieving political independence, authored by none other than the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who sponsored Abram and Sarai’s trek to the Promised Land, the One who empowered Moses to organize the Hebrews’ flight from Pharaoh’s slavery, the One who ransomed Judah from Babylonian bondage, the One invoked by the Prophets to indict Israel’s failure to practice justice in the marketplace, righteousness in the judiciary, faithfulness in the legislature.

There is of course profound spiritual significance in Good Friday’s brutal arrest, torture, and trial—resulting in Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, an explicitly political form of state-sponsored terrorism designed to repress revolutionary violence—along with the seditious drama of Sunday’s rolled-away stone. But it is a spirituality which informs and reforms social, political, and economic norms. Throughout Scripture, the indwelling of the Spirit traffics in fleshly affairs.

The starting point for this drama, though, occurs on Maundy Thursday, setting the stage for everything else.

In some parts of the church, Holy Week’s Maundy Thursday service is one where Jesus’ initiative in washing his disciples’ feet is replicated. “Maundy” (mandatum in Latin) means mandate, commission, injunction.

The story is unique to John’s Gospel (13:1-17), the Eucharistic account that has no ritual eating and drinking. We are only told that “during supper” Jesus abruptly takes up a towel and basin of water and begins to wash his friends’ feet. Such washing was a common act of hospitality for hosts in a dusty land trod by sandaled feet. We don’t know why this hadn’t happened before the meal. If I were guessing, I’d say no one wanted to do this because none of the disciples wanted to be in Jerusalem in the first place. They knew the danger to Jesus implicated them as well.

When he finished, Jesus used the occasion for his final instruction: “If I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This is Maundy Thursday’s mandate. It was a form of anointing his disciples to enact a reversal of the world’s understanding of power. The righteousness of Heaven’s purpose involves caring for neighbors, particularly the vulnerable, not lording over them. Indeed, naming Jesus as “Lord” disrupts and undermines all forms of lording.

But how is this annulment to be accomplished? By moral heroism? By accentuating the positive? By saintly disposition? By extraordinary feat of willpower?

Notice the odd question Jesus asks his friends in the middle of his teaching. “Do you know what I have done to you?”

In his presence, we have been acted upon. By his power we are no longer autonomous, belonging only to ourselves, putting our own welfare before all others. We do not become (as the marketing gods insist) consumers for whom “freedom” means the choice between cable or satellite, Mac or PC, window or aisle.

Servanthood in the manner of Jesus involves relinquishing private interests in favor of covenant ties to the welfare of the community. St. Augustine famously said, “We imitate whom we adore.” At the core of our faith, the privilege-abandoning Jesus is the cipher for the self-abandoning character of God’s love, inviting and empowering us to participate in that self-giving nature.

Short of Maundy’s mandate, Friday’s agony is little more than divine ransom (as if God was in the bartering business); the joy of Sunday’s empty tomb, little more than the reassertion of divine gloating.

Capacity for living beyond rancorous human competition has been bestowed. We are freed to wash because we have been washed; to forgive because we have been forgiven; to live graciously because grace is loosening the knots of self-absorbed greed in our own souls. The process of conversion, which is a lifetime appointment, is a form of divine photosynthesis: receiving the light of the Beloved’s delight to regenerate the verdant fields of creation’s intention for shared bounty and extravagant endowment.

In the Jesus story, the memory coheres with the mandate. However it didn’t take long before the church’s remembrance of the simple, embodied act of washing feet was replaced with philosophical, ritual, and moralistic conditions and indicators of exhibitionist purity. Exacting doctrine; fastidious performance; forensic precision.

A formula of the faith displaces formation in the faith. The former is easier to measure, manage and, thereby, to control.

There is no behavioral gap between believing and doing. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “blessed are you if you do them.”

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