There are three holy nights in the Christian faith: Christmas Eve, Easter Vigil, and tonight, Maundy Thursday.
Christmas Eve is rich with awe and wonder as we recall the unfathomable love of God for we humans, as God becomes enfleshed in Jesus. As we sing in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th'incarnate Deity.”
The Easter Vigil sees us sitting in twinkling candlelight as we re-call God’s mighty acts of salvation in human history, all leading to that ultimate act of salvation as the stone sealing the tomb explodes open, the Risen Lord bursting forth in new life. Again, we witness the unfathomable love of God as Jesus passes over from death into life, trampling death down once and for all. Hymnody again captures the essence of this truth, “Love’s redeeming work is done, fought the fight, the battle won. Death in vain forbids him rise; Christ has opened paradise.
Both evenings proclaim the abundant, unlimited richness of God’s love for us. To paraphrase St. Athanasius, the Incarnation - the Word becoming flesh - occurred so we might become “partakers of the divine nature.” The Resurrection occurred so that we might be freed from the bonds of death and live without fear. “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offenses given; but now at God’s right hand he stands and brings us life from heaven.”
And then there’s tonight, Maundy Thursday, when all that unfathomable love expressed in both the Incarnation and the Resurrection is captured in three intimate acts of love.
But Maundy Thursday is significantly different from Christmas Eve and the Vigil, because the Incarnation and Resurrection are acts of love given to humanity by the Deity of God. Tonight, we are given three things that witness to God’s unfathomable love for us by the human Jesus.
The first of those three gifts Jesus gives us is the Mandatum Novum, the new commandant, after which this day is named. Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” On the night before he dies, Jesus sums up his whole ministry in this new commandment. Do unto others as I have done to you. Love wildly and radically. Love the least of these. The unlovable. The marginalized. The despised. Those who hate you. Even all those who defy or deny the love I have brought to the world. Do not respond to hatred with hatred. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44) Give to all the unfathomable love of God that I have given you.
The second gift is given through the foot-washing. This was a humiliating act in the culture of first century Palestine; an act that only a servant would have performed. At the Last Supper this role is assumed by Jesus, in a supreme act of humility, as he washes his disciple’s feet. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, that [Jesus] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6-8)
In washing the disciple’s feet Jesus did what none of them would ever have thought of doing. Even as fishermen, farmers, and tax collectors, people pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole in that society, such an act would have been considered humiliating . Yet Jesus tells them, “Surely if I do this, you ought to be prepared to do it. I am giving you an example of how to behave towards each other.” Our status in life, our sense of entitlement, our wealth, our university degrees, our ordination status, all of that are worth nothing in God’s Reign. If God incarnate can kneel before us in humble service in a display of God’s unfathomable love for us, then surely, we can humble ourselves and do so as well for each other.
And for the record: the foot-washing becomes symbolic of how we should be humble in all our encounters with each other. It’s not just this one act, on this one night of the year. While the foot-washing is not an official sacrament, it is truly a sacramental act; an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That grace is intended to transform us in all of life, each and every day, making us witnesses of God’s unfathomable love in all we do and say.
In a commentary I read the writer called the foot-washing act by Jesus, The Royalty of Service. I love that imagery! When we engage in acts of humility toward others we are engaged in the royal service of God’s Kingdom.
The third gift Jesus gives us this night is the Eucharist; the gift of the bread and wine, his body and blood. Each time we celebrate this sacred meal we do so, as he commanded us, in remembrance of him. Each time we partake of the Eucharist we are reminded of the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the Cross, as well as his Resurrection from the grave, both gifts of God’s unfathomable love for us. But this holy meal is more than an act evoking a memory, it is the food that gives us true life. As Jesus told the disciples, ““I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn. 6:35)
The Eucharist transforms us. To paraphrase the first letter of John, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, Jesus abides in us and we in him. Being so intimately interconnected with Jesus, the Eucharist is the food for our journeys which sustains us as we strive to follow Him.
This is a holy night, indeed. God’s unfathomable love for us is richly given in three sacred gifts. May Christ’s Body and Blood nourish us so we may live lives of humble service, loving one another as we have been profoundly loved.
 Hymnal ’82 # 188 “Love’s redeeming work is done.”
 Hymnal ’82 # 185. “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands.”
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