Maundy Thursday - imitation of Christ.
Those words: those terrifying and powerful words, which so perfectly encapsulate the teaching of Christ and summarise His years of preaching and performing miracles - ‘that as I have done to you, so you do also’. (John 13:15).
The setting is in the upper room, with all the disciples gathered with Christ for the first Mass. Our Lord had just finished washing and drying the feet of the disciples when He uttered these words. Is He then issuing a command, on the eve of His passion, to go out and wash the feet of our neighbour? Or must we look further down to draw the full meaning of this line?
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea records the words of St. Augustine regarding this line. St. Augustine mentions that whilst the washing of feet is done by many as an act of hospitality, the chief meaning is the spiritual washing of feet whereby we turn ourselves and our neighbours away from sin. We must admit our guilt before God and man, falling upon the mercy of God and begging forgiveness.
St. John records these words of Christ later in the chapter: “That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another”. (John 13:34). What then is this love, in imitation of the Divine love, which we are called to have? It is a love which is crucially only found in and through Christ, because it is the sign by which we shall be identified as Catholics. Through this love we are thus bound to Christ, and consequentially to each other also as members of the mystical body of Christ.
It is with this new and striking command that the gospel of the day closes. The next time we turn to the gospels is to read the Passion of Christ as recorded by St. John tomorrow. This is no coincidence, for the call to imitate Christ is completed the next day by learning what form this love takes. St. John mentions this in his epistle, when he states that “In this we have known the charity of God, because he hath laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”. (1 John 3:16)
Thus the love of Christ is a self-sacrificial love which we are called to imitate out of love for Him. That which we are doing, just as He did for us must, be a real and living love. However the word is commonly misused by both secular and religious. Love is not allowing unchecked actions to occur, but holding ourselves and our neighbour to account according to the law of God. It is not a sense of permissive acceptance of all things, but rather a call to hold ourselves and others to the laws of God and of nature. Love in the truest sense of the word is an imitation of Christ in all things, willing to do the will of God instead of our own. St. John admonishes that we must “not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth”. (1 John 3:18).
Love cannot be separated from sacrifice, especially not any true love, worthy of the title and worthy of Christ. As the Triduum unfolds and we are drawn more into the beautiful texts of the liturgy, we understand that loving one another as He loved us, necessitates loving God above all. It is only when we have learnt to do so can we properly love one another according to the manner to which we are called. Indeed in order to effect a love of God or neighbour, we must learn to sacrifice and die to self. Our fallen nature finds it all too easy to fall into self-love. Thus, we cannot read these lines from St. John, calling us to love in the manner of Christ, without marrying them with this command: “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”. (Matthew 16:24).
Christ’s love in the Eucharist.
The new command of love which is contained in the New Testament is the precept which we see embodied in Christ, as He gave Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist and upon the cross. Cornelius a Lapide mentions when commentating upon this line, that Christ is thus saying:
because I have loved you in a new and especial manner, taking upon Me your flesh and giving it to you by means of the Eucharist which I have just instituted as the food of your soul, that in this Sacrament I might unite you all to Me, and to one another in Me. (1)
In an unprecedented time when our access to the Holy Mass is nigh impossible, even during the Triduum, we can take solace in the fact that whilst we cannot physically receive the Holy Eucharist, Christ is nevertheless truly present, longing to give Himself to us. His love for us has resulted in His becoming ‘the Divine prisoner’ in tabernacles throughout the world. Normally we have but to enter the church to see the flickering lamp indicating God’s presence before us. His constant presence as an act of His love requires a corresponding act on our behalf - namely to be ever present before God. This entails maintaining the presence of God in our daily lives, thus ensuring that our actions are in constant unity with the Divine will.
On Maundy Thursday we recall the occasion of the first mass, offered by Christ in the upper room. It is a time when we feel most cruelly the deprivation of Holy Mass, on a day when we would be flocking to the church to begin the sacred ceremonies of the Triduum. Yet this time can be an occasion to unite ourselves to the sorrowful heart of Mary and share the desolation which she suffered at the cross. Our sorrow can be as nothing compared to hers, and so this separation from the Mass during Holy Week can be a fruitful time to grow in virtue in imitation of her. Such a time can also serve to fill us with renewed zeal and devotion for the Holy Eucharist, upon such time as we might have access to the normal sacramental life of the Church once more.
Until that time arrives, we must be content with answering the call to imitate the sacrificial love of Christ, without the consolation of the sacraments. If the Church as a whole answers this call to a renewed and genuine imitation of Christ, the graces which would flow from such a widespread conversion would be immense. Just as prayer, fasting and conversion of hearts were necessary to avoid the great calamities of ages past, so also are they needed today. Upon this Maundy Thursday, may we pray that the whole Church returns wholeheartedly to the practice of the love of Christ, as properly manifested by adhering to the will of God and the truths of the faith.
(1) Cornelius a Lapide, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapter 13, verse 34.