Deacon Cornell's Homily


Exodus 12:1-8,11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-15


March 28, 2002, Holy Thursday, Cycle A

In addition to calling today Holy Thursday, it is referred to as Maundy Thursday. Today, in Canterbury England, Queen Elizabeth distributed something called Maundy Money to 76 men and 76 women who are pensioners. Each of the 152 pensioners received two leather sacks, one red and one white. The red one contains ₤£5.50, the white one specially minted silver coins totaling 76 pence. As many British customs, there are dozens of tiny details accompanying the ceremony, from the special gold altar dish made by Charles II in 1660 used to carry the purses to the special linens and towels worn by various church and government leaders during the ceremony. The number of men and women who receive the Maundy Money as well as the value of the money in the white purse is the determined by the age of the monarch. The historical roots of this custom go back more than 1400 years as it is mentioned by St. Augustine of Canterbury around 600 AD. The custom is rooted in the Gospel story from John that we just heard. Jesus washes the feet of the apostles and tells them to do the same for one another. So for over 1400 years, the British monarch has washed the feet, and clothed and provisioned his poorer subjects as Jesus commanded. The earliest record of the details of the custom are from 1210, when King John presented 13 poor men with new outfits of clothing, and fed another 1000 poor men. Since the 17th century, the monarch no longer washes the feet of the recipients; the gifts are symbolic. The ₤£5.50 in the red purse is for clothing and food.

The word Maundy comes from the same root as commandment, as demand, and as mandate. In tonightís Gospel we hear Jesus tell us, along with the disciples, that he has given us a model to follow. As he did for the disciples gathered with him at that last supper, so also are we to do for one another. Later in his discourse with his disciples he will twice command them, and us, to love one another as he as loved us.

As Fr. Butler reminded us in his homily on Sunday, this Triduum is no simple remembering of something that happened 2000 years ago, however dramatic and important that may have been. The Eucharist is not just a re-enactment of something that happened at the Last Supper. And the thing that makes this more than a simple remembering or re-enactment is Jesusí command, his mandate to us: We are to love one another as he loves us, down on his knees to serve us.

All of a sudden, this mandate moves us from being observers of some liturgical drama to participants in a drama of life. This command requires a response. In the Christian Scriptures, keeping the commandments or the law is transformed from a duty or obligation to a response to Godís offer of love. We are to keep the commandments as Jesus did the Fatherís will, out of love. And all of the commandments come down to this one: love one another as Jesus loves us.

When we first really realize what Jesus is commanding us to do, it can be overwhelming. That is why the process of becoming a Christian is just that: a process. Whether we received our baptism at the start of the process, as most of us, or in the middle, as Derek and Nathan will do on Saturday, we will never be finished fulfilling our baptismal promise to keep this command. We must continually choose to respond or not, in everything we do in life. Just listening to this story of the last supper shows us a range of responses: from Judasí betrayal to Peterís confused submission to having his feet washed. This range of responses continues in our day, across the many who are called to this response, as well as across the many different moments in any one life.

So often we make the wrong choice in our response. We choose to respond not in love but in anger or fear or envy or resentment. But we can take heart knowing that Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples, even Peterís feet and even Judasí feet. We also take heart knowing that this response is not just a personal one. We are called to respond in community. That is why we gather day after day as community for the Eucharist. To give thanks for the gift of love the Father has bestowed on us, and to choose by our participation to be servant to all around us. By our choosing to participate in this Eucharist, we become more fully the body of Christ here on this earth, and as the body of Christ we go forth from each Eucharist to love those around us as Jesus loves us. †

We must be careful that what we do ritually does not lose its connection to the reality of what Jesus calls us to. Jesus did not just talk about washing the discipleís feet or just tell them that they should serve one another. He took off his cloak, got down on his knees and washed the grime from their feet.

One disturbing footnote to the Maundy Money ceremony today was a letter written to the Canterbury City Council protesting the fact that they allocated ₤£46,000 for the expenses associated with the Queen coming there for the ceremony but that they had been dragging their feet on the matter of ₤£5,000 to make city buildings more accessible to the handicapped.

Jesus has given us a model of the response his command requires. It requires us to respond with our whole being, not just with our head. So Maundy Thursday is more than just a memorial feast that we observe. It is yet another opportunity to choose to respond to Jesusí command: Do this (not think about this or even believe in this, but), do this in remembrance of me.

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