today is maundy thursday. maundy is a derivation of the latin word, mandatum, which means commandment. today is so called "commandment thursday" because we remember the final supper jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, and in particular, what happened at that meal.
it wasn't just any meal, of course. it was the celebration of the passover. a time when followers of YHWH looked back to remember how God delivered their ancestors from slavery in egypt, and how God had established a new covenant with the people. the whole meal was full of sign and symbol of this covenant, this sacrificial system, in which the blood of a lamb had allowed the spirit of death to pass over those who put their faith in God. the passover meal had become such a ritual, that there were certain words and prayers and routines that were part of it. and on this night when Jesus ate the meal with this closest friends, he did it differently. he basically told them that his own blood was going to be the lamb's blood that allowed death to pass over all of God's children. he was remembering that ancient covenant God had made with the people, but he told them that he was doing something new. "i am giving you a new commandment (mandatum)," he told them, "to love one another as i have loved you."
so in the old covenant, one had to obey the law, and then make sacrifices of animals and grains and so forth to compensate for the failures to obey the law. but in this new covenant, we have a new commandment. it isn't about making animal sacrifices, though one must admit that the sacrifices required in this new covenant, while less painful to the birds and animals, are perhaps much harder for us to make. this covenant calls us to love each other. this isn't a program or a system. it is a calling and a commandment.
as if to get it through their thick heads, Jesus knelt down and washed the feet of his friends, and soon to be deserters. i imagine he was sure to get in between their toes, and to scrub briskly on the bottoms of their feet, where the grime really gathered. and he did this intimate gesture as a way of demonstrating the kind of love he was talking about. his commandment (not a suggestion or a gentle persuasion) to love is not about being nice or even friendly, as great as those qualities are. no, he is mandating that we get our fingers dirty; that we get up close and personal; and that we be quick about surrendering our attachments to titles and positions and entitlements. instead of thinking about what we deserve, we are to lower ourselves, to kneel to the level of the dirt and grime of our neighbors (after all, how clean are your feet, really?), and love them right where they are.
that is our new commandment. it is a new covenant. it is marked by spilt blood and broken flesh. it is remembered in ritual and sacrament. and it is wonderfully and beautifully practiced by all those who are truly followers of the One who first demonstrated it.