If you knew you were going to be arrested tonight and probably executed tomorrow… how would you spend today? For that’s exactly the situation that confronted Jesus on this Passover Eve long ago when He gathered His little band of followers together to celebrate that ancient festival of deliverance.
Would you try to get away from those looking for you before they could do you harm? Go on the lam and escape? For indeed, from the Garden of Gethsemane, all Jesus had to do was to hike half an hour or so up the Mount of Olives, go over the ridge and then disappear into the Judean wilderness where they could never find Him.
Would you instead begin to prepare a defense for the trial which was coming? Maybe gather up documents to support your case, find some corroborating evidence, round up some witnesses, and hire the best attorney you could find, if nothing else, just to slow the whole process down until you could begin to figure it all out?
Or would you simply try to spend some meaningful time with your friends and family while you still could? Share in a holiday meal just as you might have done many times before? Let them know what they meant to you?
In the case of Jesus, that’s precisely what He did. For let’s be clear about it: Jesus knew exactly what was about to happen in His life. He knew what was in the heart of his betrayer and in the muddled minds of even His closest friends like Peter. He knew that very soon He would be returning to God. But He also knew that He had come from God and that the Father had put all things under His power.
And so, “having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love,” as John 13.1 reminds us. Before they had even finished eating the evening meal, in fact, Jesus got up, took off His cloak, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash His disciples’ feet.
They protested, of course, for washing the feet of someone else was not only a dirty job for the lowest of servants in a household, but it seemed particularly inappropriate for a teacher like Jesus to do for His students. But the Master– who understood so profoundly the paradoxical power of serving others– went right ahead, setting before them an example that they could never forget.
Years later, in fact, His followers still talked about not only His example but the new commandment that He also gave them that night–that they love one another even as He had loved them. And that “new commandment” or mandate (or as it is translated into Latin, the novum mandatum) is what has given this day—Maundy Thursday—it’s name.
To put it another way, Jesus spent the last full day of His life crafting His final lesson for those who had known Him, which was purely and simply that we love one another.
Even if we disagree, or we’ve been disappointed by someone else. Even if they don’t share our faith or fit into our fellowship. Or they voted the wrong way in the last election. For if we love one another, so Jesus said, all will know that we really are His disciples.
I wonder if today might not be an excellent time indeed to put that ancient new mandatum into practice.