Maundy Thursday: Love and Forgiveness

Maundy Thursday is observed in many churches in the form of a modified Passover meal which includes the Lord’s Supper/Communion. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin term mandatum which means “commandment.” (Our word “mandate” is based on this Latin word.) Maundy refers to the “new commandment” which Jesus gave on that last night of his life and is found in John 13:34-35. During that meal Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

Jesus’ unconditional, indiscriminate, and self-giving love for us becomes the template for our love for everyone else.

The Jewish religion already had commandments for Jews to love one another. So, in what way was this a new commandment? The answer to this question is in the phrase “as I have loved you.” Our love for one another should be like the love Jesus has for us. Jesus’ unconditional, indiscriminate, and self-giving love for us becomes the template for our love for everyone else. Once again, we find the Gospels presenting Jesus not only as the object of our faith, but also as the example of our faith. 

One of the most important qualities of the love we see in Jesus is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a crucial and indispensable part of Christ-like love. All authentic and self-giving love involves forgiveness. On this holy day during Holy Week, we would do well to reflect on what is required to give and receive forgiveness.

Humility is an absolutely necessary requirement. The word humility comes from the Latin word “humus.” Humus refers to the soil and reminds us of the Genesis tradition that we are made from the dust of the earth. The very word “human” also finds its root in “humus.” We are all earthlings and dependent on the goodness and generativity of the earth. This common and essential nature of our make-up grounds us in humility and gratitude. Arrogance and greed find no place in our true humanity. The worth of each human being is ultimately found in God’s deep and abiding love for everyone without exception. We are equal in our humility (our common origin in humus), and we are equal in God’s heart. Such humility allows us to offer forgiveness to our brothers and sisters because we are willing to admit and recognize that, on a very deep level, they are like we are. And the same humility allows us to remove our masks and accept the forgiveness from others. Genuine and transforming forgiveness presupposes humility.  

Forgiveness also requires honesty about ourselves and others. Others are not defined completely by what they have done to us. When we think of some of the most hurtful things we have ever done to people during our lives, none of us would want these fellow humans to assume that such hurtful deeds define who we are. One of the biggest mistakes we make about other humans is to assume that their interactions with us define the totality of their identity. Even the best of humans is a paradoxical combination of goodness and evil, courage and cowardice, compassion and indifference. We all have bad days when we are not at our best, and we hope that others do not conclude that our actions and attitudes on those days reveal who we are in the essence of our being. The honesty which results from this realization of our mixed and common natures is a most helpful component of forgiveness. 

Humility and honesty lead to the compassion necessary for forgiveness. Compassion requires us to put ourselves in the place of another and to ask what that person may want or need. Empathy is a part of compassion, but empathy by itself is not enough for the kind of love Jesus commands in John’s Gospel. Compassion is always love in action. It moves from the feeling of empathy to the action of meeting the needs of the other. Jesus saw compassion as the primary characteristic of God that we are to emulate. His whole life can be defined as love in action. The genuine experience of humility and honesty will facilitate the practice of compassion. We forgive because we know that we are similar to the one we are called to forgive. We remember our own failures in our interactions with others. We acknowledge our own weakness. We accept that we are all paradoxical creatures who can be saints or sinners depending on the circumstances of our lives. From the humility and honesty we have cultivated, we realize that we and others need forgiveness to survive and thrive in this world. And out of compassion, we forgive the other because we know that we have needed the grace of forgiveness in the past and will need it in the future. 

All healing (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) comes through acts of forgiveness.

Forgiveness also requires a willingness to move beyond the past and to focus on the present and the future. The past often dominates and enslaves us. I have known people who after decades still could not let go of some slight or hurt they had suffered at the hands of others. And I have known people who still crucify themselves daily because of something hurtful they did many years in the past. They have never learned how to forgive themselves, and are thus denied healing peace and serenity. If we are trapped in the past, we can never grow and mature. Would you look to a six-year old or a teenager for wisdom and advice to deal with the challenges of your life? We all know better than to turn to those who have not experienced enough of life to cultivate wisdom and compassion. However, when we are stuck in the past, we are being guided by the immature perspectives and assumptions we had in those former years.  We allow ourselves to be controlled by unhelpful scripts written out of remorse or a desire for revenge and are not free to embrace the opportunities and to face the crises of our present lives, much less the potential of the future. Forgiveness allows life to begin again. I believe that is why Jesus stressed forgiveness so much in his teachings. He knew that without forgiveness as a vital part of our daily living, we cannot be open to the newness the Kingdom of God can bring. All healing (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) comes through acts of forgiveness. And only through such healing can we grow as children of God and faithful followers of Jesus.

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that reconciliation is the final goal of the Kingdom of God. The much misunderstood and unappreciated Apostle Paul repeatedly focuses on this final goal of God’s love. Reconciliation is dependent on forgiveness. God in Christ has forgiven us. We are all invited by God to forgive ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Such acts anticipate God’s cosmic reconciliation which finds its ultimate fulfillment in that day when at long last God is all in all. Our forgiveness of others and our receiving such forgiveness from others are building blocks for that final victory of healing love. 

Prayer in Preparation for Communion

Creator and lover of all, as we take this Bread and Wine, may we rejoice in the unconditional love they represent. We come before you with divided loyalties, mixed motives, and compromised discipleship. So, on this night when our Lord struggled, loved, and forgave, we ask for your forgiveness. Forgive us our hunger and thirst for more and more of what can never feed our souls and expand our love. Quiet us that we may take the time to appreciate your blessings both earthly and spiritual. Still us that we may listen to both neighbors and strangers. Make sensitive our ears and hearts that we may hear not just the loud but also the meekest of voices. Forgive our prejudice and pride so that our eyes may see that you have blessed all with your Divine Spirit. And forgive us when we, out of resentment, pride, or fear, cannot or will not forgive our brothers and sisters. As we partake of these sacraments, may we each understand that your grace extends to all your creation, and thank you that such love comes even to us. Through Christ we pray, amen. 

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