Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Commandment

It's Maundy Thursday, 2012.  Odd that, until today, I had never really wondered about the origin of that strange name.

Most of the online sources I consulted agree that the term "Maundy" derives from the Latin mandatum via the Old French mandé (commandment) and refers to the "new"commandment ("Love one another, as I have loved you") which Jesus pronounced just after washing his disciples' feet on the evening before his death (interestingly, the only gospel to mention the foot-washing, John, almost completely neglects the iconic Last Supper).

Over my many flip-flopping years, I have attended sundry Maundy Thursday services--in my various religious avatars: Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian.  And I was invariably deeply moved--whatever catechism I had most recently espoused--especially by the ceremonial foot-washing and the solemn stripping of the altar, in preparation for the bleak mourning of Good Friday. This is an intensely beautiful liturgy celebrating friendship, love, and self-sacrifice in the face of inevitable--and impending--death.

Sadly, I no longer participate, since I no longer find it possible to believe in the Christian "big picture"--those fundamentally cruel dogmas about an angry God demanding a blood atonement which he, himself (suddenly "loving") provides, but only for right believers.  On the other hand, humble, self-sacrificing love between humans, as a sustainer and comforter in the face of ineluctable, incomprehensible death--that I DO believe and embrace.

To put it another way, I feel that the Maundy Thursday ritual--taken alone and out of context--accords quite nicely with my current (rather melancholy) agnostic humanism.  Much more nicely than, say, the liturgies of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter--all of which emphasize Jesus' supposed divinity (a notion I cannot reconcile with what I actually know) rather than his humanity (a notion with which I can easily identify and sympathize).

Jesus was a good man.  And he died for no good reason.  People, powerful people, people in authority, were afraid of him, probably because he seemed to be able to influence UNpowerful people with ideas that were often unorthodox, inconsistent with received thinking.  He had the potential, at least, to be a trouble-maker, an agent provocateur.

But I doubt that such was his intent. I suspect, rather, that he simply got carried away--that one idea led to another and that, with the growing success of his preaching, he simply lost the freedom to control his destiny--he began to feel obliged to conform to the "self" that his vision--as interpreted by other people--dictated.  A carpenter from Nazareth brought to trial--for treason--before the Roman procurator?  It seems entirely preposterous.  Yet history is sprinkled, here and there, with similar tales--tales of free-thinkers and luminaries who, ultimately, became victims of the "legend" that they themselves had created:  Alexander, Caesar, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.

So, on this Maundy Thursday, I mourn the loss of such a good man.  He faced death bravely, but with totally human awe and apprehension--while urging his friends to abjure hate and embrace love.  If his "new" commandment (mandatum) were the sole creed of Christianity, I could undoubtedly still call myself a Christian.  Hold that thought.  And as John Lennon sang, "Imagine..."

John 13:34.  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  

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