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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Holy Week at Southwark Address 5: Crucified Before Friends (Maundy Thursday)

This Holy Week we’ve been reflecting on the cross in the various “worlds” in which Jesus is crucified, the stages on which the passion is acted out in front of its different audiences. So far, they have been big and public: the worlds of the city, of religion, of politics, of the crowd. In all of them there has been tension and hostility, chaos and confusion as we are pulled this way and that by a narrative whose pace can leave us breathless. Tonight’s world is in complete contrast: a quiet, peaceful, hospitable world in which friends gather to be together in intimacy and share food and drink as a sign of the love they have for one another.

“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” Jesus’ words give us the name by which we know Maundy Thursday, the day of the mandatum novum, the great command to love. It is love that sets the tone of this Paschal Triduum, these great days that begin tonight and take us through to Easter. Love is its meaning, love is his meaning; it always was and always shall be. 

Where do we first learn love? As infants at the hands of our parents and our siblings, in the circle of intimacy we call home. This is why those who have not been fortunate enough to have received “good enough parenting” can find it difficult to love and to trust later in life. And so on the night before he dies, Jesus gathers his disciples, his friends, into the intimacy of an upper room, a family foyer to call home for a while as together they perform the ancient ceremonies of Passover time, and tell the story of redemption and speak about the love that has brought them here and welcomed them.

This upper room is not only a place to speak about love but to express it, act it out. The work of love comes first, and only then the words. In an action that has become so familiar to us but which must have startled the disciples at that last supper, Jesus girds himself with the towel and performs the foot-washing. There is so much that he wants them to learn: about courtesy, about humility, about relationships, about service. But more than anything else, this is an enacted parable about love: what it is, where it comes from, how we recognise it, what it is for.  

There is only one test of love, he says; and it is this: to honour it as covenant, to keep it with integrity and loyalty, to be self-forgetting, and as he will shortly say to his disciples in this same upper room, to lay down your life for your friends. This is far more than emotions. It is a decision we make to love like this, an act of the will.  If you can’t contemplate dying for someone, it’s arguable that you haven’t truly begun to love them.  

It’s worth reflecting whom we would dare to die for, what would impel us to give up our lives for someone else.  For most, it is those whom God has given us to be intimate with: family, close friends.  These loves have clearly defined human faces.  For some it is love of nation and homeland: ‘the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test’ as the hymn puts it, in words that are questionable but are deeply meant for all that. For others again, it is a genuinely altruistic love for the weak and vulnerable of our world who have little hope in life other than because of those who, literally or figuratively, lay down their lives for them in love and service.  Whichever it is, this is the test Jesus applies.  To love is to be committed to going wherever it leads, loving even to the point of death.  “As I have loved you” says Jesus. 

And the point of this is, as I’ve said, that Jesus not only speaks about love but embodies it. The criterion of love he first applies to himself, as John puts it, loving ‘to the end’. St Paul says that he lays aside his glory in order to take the role of a slave; self-abasement, self-emptying, the ultimate act of self-giving we call kenosis. In a few hours he will be arrested and tried and led out to die a criminal’s death.  And all for us, every human child: that is the measure of love that it goes right to the end.  It is cruciform, has the shape of a cross.  St Paul puts it like this: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’.  Tomorrow we shall bear witness to how this takes place in the sight of earth and heaven. Tonight, in the foot-washing and in the gifts we lay on the altar of this Last Supper, we bear witness to it as the intimate circle of Jesus’s friends, his companions, literally those who break the bread with him.

What Jesus is saying is that love is always sacrificial, always giving its all, always giving it to the end.  ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is that it withholds nothing, lays itself down for the sake of others. We don’t need to be told when we are loved like this.  We know it whether it is in our marriages, partnerships and friendships, or in the care we received when we most needed it.  We know it when we observe how the commitment and generosity of good people takes them to the most dangerous and risky of places, to the most vulnerable people in our society, to the most desperate in our world, the people we shall especially hold in our hearts and prayers in the great intercessions from the cross on Good Friday.  Above all we know it when we gaze upon Jesus on the cross and find ourselves looking straight into the face of God. 

God’s love is always moving among and between us and bathing this world in its light. As Julian of Norwich said, we only exist at all because God loves us: creation is the evidence that God is love because he steps back, so to speak, out of hospitality as he opens the door to us and gives us space to be. In all our personal stories, we glimpse how God so loved that he gave, and so loves that he goes on giving, laying down his life for his friends which is how he meets and embraces us. 

It happens in every act of healing care and compassion we know.  It happens when reconciliation brings together broken peoples and communities and mends them.  It happens when our hearts are glad because some beautiful piece of music or a poem or painting has touched us.  It happens in the birth of a child and the greeting of a friend and the touch of someone we love.  It happens at deathbed farewells to those who are dear to us, and at the graveside where we entrust them to the earth for cherishing. 

And it happens at the altar in the visible words of love: bread and wine, taken, blessed, broken and given.  In all these ways, and a thousand others, each moment, each hour, each day, love comes to us. She bids us welcome, invites us to her banquet, compels us to sit and eat. And then we are close to glimpsing what lies at the heart of creation. We know that despite everything, love is its meaning, God’s meaning.  

And God’s meaning is the cross-shaped love that is symbolised in the foot-washing and in the bread and wine of eucharist: self-emptying, self-giving, unwavering, unfaltering, persevering to the end. In the intimacy of the upper room, in the sight of friends, the love of Good Friday is already being made visible, poured out, demonstrating its credentials as the greatest power there is in all of life. 

It may not always seem like it as we look around us at a world of pain. But we do not lose heart. Amor vincit omnia says the old tag, love overcomes all things. God has plenty of time to finish his work. We wait for it with a hope that rises like sap in this springtime of grace and peace. And we wait together as loving friends. In these holy days our crucified and risen Lord is showing us the most profound truth of all, the truth for which we would gladly live and die. He is showing us “how grandly Love intends / to work till all creation sings / to fill all worlds, to crown all things”.*

Maundy Thursday 2019 (John 13.1-17, 31-35)
* Hymn by Brian A. Wren, “Great God, your love has called us here”.

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