Like countless other children, I grew up hearing the term “Maundy Thursday” during the Lenten season and just assumed that the grown-ups around me were saying “Monday Thursday.” I knew Easter was a special time, so I just assumed that this “Monday Thursday” thing was part of the deal. If Jesus could come out of the tomb on Easter morning, why couldn’t we have Monday and Thursday on the same day??
I was actually in divinity school, about fifteen years ago, before I ever learned the origin of Maundy Thursday. By then I knew enough to say “Maundy” instead of “Monday.” And I knew the term had to have something to do with the final gathering of Jesus with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. But I still didn’t know what the strange modifier “Maundy” meant, nor why it had been attached to a day that otherwise would have done just fine as “Holy Thursday.”
Tracing Maundy Thursday’s lineage actually requires doing something that Protestants almost never do: opening up the Latin Bible. Turning to John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, we read this in verses 34-35:
“Mandatum novum do vobis, ut diligatis invicem. Sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem. In hoc cognoscent omnes quia mei discipuli estis, si dilectionem habueritis ad invicem.”
This is the well-known passage says, “A new commandment I give unto you–that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have lover for one another.” The Latin “mandatum novum” translates as the English “new commandment” (think of our word “mandate” which comes from mandatum and is a synonym for “command” or the more biblically sounding “commandment”).
Our “maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” is just a corruption of the original “mandatum.” So Maundy Thursday is really just Mandatum Thursday. Or put another way, it is Commandment Thursday. It’s the day when Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. Moreover, wrapped up in Jesus’ mandatum to us is a deeper implication: namely, that if we are doing it right, the world will be able to identify us as Christians by the very quality of love that we bear toward one another.
When we preach this passage on Maundy Thursday, we should take care to emphasize the extent of the love Jesus is talking about. Specifically, Jesus’ qualifier, “Just as I have loved you,” calls us to look both backward and forward in the gospel for those specific ways that Jesus loves the disciples.
Looking backward, we recognize that Jesus says these words right after he has disrobed and, taking the role of a servant, washed each of the disciples’ feet. He models love for them not by a long-winded discourse on the virtue of love, but rather by showing them love firsthand through his actions. The footwashing conveys a depth of meaning that a whole truckload of elegant rhetoric could not.
We also look forward to how Jesus will love the disciples (and indeed, the whole world) through his death on the cross. So while the love he models for us takes the form of servanthood, it also carries that servanthood to an absolute extreme. It includes the sacrifice of the servant’s own life, or as Jesus himself says, the laying down of the shepherd’s life for his sheep (John 10:11). And this is the love with which we are to love one another.
All this takes place in the Gospel of John, which captures the heart of the Last Supper with the act of footwashing and the teaching that goes along with it. But we should also connect it with the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke — where the breaking of bread and giving of the cup is accompanied by the words of institution. In this gift of Eucharist, Christ demonstrates for us the depth of his love in his own self-giving. This, too, is a sign of the love with which we are to love one another.
As difficult as this teaching is for Christians, we should recognize that it is not an option! Jesus’ teaching is a mandatum, a commandment. And there is a reason for this. In English translations, the end of the passage reads, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But the static quality of “know” in English obscures the meaning of the Latin cognoscent, which carries the progressive meaning of learning or acquiring knowledge. The world does not understand the true meaning of love. But through the church’s witness to Christ’s love for the world – expressed through the love of the disciples for one another – the world can learn what love really means. So the aim of Mandatum Day is that our embodiment of the command becomes a means of salvation for the world. Only when the church faithfully practices Jesus’ love can the world learn that there is a better way to live.