Mandatum novum do vobis:
I give you a new commandment.
— John 13:34
One of my favourite words is Maundy. Growing up I never knew what Maundy Thursday meant. I just knew it was a pretty serious time during Easter. For a while I used the word interchangeably with maudlin, and came to think of the maundies as relating to sadness and gloom. So it was with some surprise that I eventually learned it meant commandment, from the Old French mandé, and from the Latin, mandatum. Its connection to church practice comes from Christ’s own words: Mandatum novum do vobis, or “I give you a new commandment.”
We celebrate Maundy Thursday during Holy Week, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It was there that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. You will remember the dramatic retelling of this episode in John 13 when Jesus not only identifies Judas as his betrayer, but also humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter appears to bristle at the intent, but Jesus explains: “If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me.” The point of the gesture, and one Jesus insists on, is that this is a moment of communion with the other that must be passed on through all our relationships. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.”
The obvious contemporary parallel to this behaviour has been modelled by Pope Francis, who time and again has chosen to wash the feet of the other, first at a youth detention centre, then prisoners and then women. More than his decision to live outside the papal palace or to eschew luxury vehicles, the pope’s washing of the feet is a deeply symbolic connection to Christ’s demonstrated ministry. It is also an example of servant leadership, where the most humbling act brings the highest and lowest to the place of common bond where God first placed us.
It is perhaps because of this that Maundy Thursday matters so much, but also that we need to move past the bristling Peter showed, especially when we look at those who are not like us: the outsider, the marginal, the struggling and the lost. Our need to look beyond formal rules and regulations and reach out, despite whatever fear or strangeness separates us, is not only important, but mandated. Christ did not come to make us comfortable; he came to make us grow. Are we prepared to turn away?
Turcotte is the president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.