Set in the south wall at St Mary’s / Childwick / is a small glass-fronted case containing a set of Maundy money. I shall say no more about it because you can see for yourself next time you are up there. But it provides me with a local / home-grown lead into this address.
Slightly more remote / but staying with the St Albans connection / our former bishop / two bishops ago / the late John Taylor / held the post of Lord High Almoner to the Queen for many years. It’s a title that to me is redolent of Gilbert & Sullivan / but the job content is serious/ It falls to the holder of that office / currently the Rt Rev’d John Inge / Bishop of Worcester / to play a major role in the planning of the Maundy Thursday ceremony that takes place each year in a cathedral when the Sovereign distributes the aforementioned Maundy money to selected lucky recipients / one for each year of her life. And one of them / Edwin May / in the year the Queen came to St Albans 1957 / belonged to Childwick. None of which explains how the ceremony came about / or what theological truth undergirds it.
As to the history / we must return to the 4th Century AD / after Christianity had been adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire / courtesy of Constantine. The Christian community in Jerusalem started to engage in a dramatic commemoration of the events of what we know as Holy week. They would visit the presumed sites of those events / and at the very hours when they were said to have taken place. On the Thursday of Holy Week they celebrated the Eucharist in the afternoon / then they kept a vigil on the Mount of Olives and after midnight / that is / on Good Friday / went into Gethsemane / which is on the lower slopes.
The flood of pilgrims to the Holy Land at that time and later / took the news of this very moving memorial back to their own lands. It also had a profound effect on all who took part. And because it was not physically possible for everyone to go to Jerusalem / Jerusalem came to them / wherever they were / in the celebration of Holy Week in their own churches. So / 2000 years later / here we are.
There remains the name to explain. Maundy derives from the Latin mandatum meaning “command.” We see it in our English word “mandate.”
It refers to Jesus’ command that the disciples should love one another.
I give you a new commandment / said Jesus / 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. [Jn 13:34].
Jesus demonstrated that love by washing his disciples’ feet. So the custom arose for ALL superiors / kings / the Pope / bishops / abbots / to wash the feet of their subjects during the Eucharist on that day. The present-day distribution of the Royal Maundy is the modified version of that ceremony where the Monarch / who spends her life receiving gifts / on this day reverses the process / and gives.
Incidentally / the disciples in the Upper Room that night included Judas Iscariot at this point in the proceedings. And so / in washing his feet as well / when they met together for a meal / Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of the Psalmist: Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me. [Ps 41:9] Washing the disciples’ feet was a symbolic act. It was symbolic of inner cleansing / for as St John writes of Jesus telling the ever-impetuous Peter: Unless I wash you / you have no part in me. [Jn 13:8]. The foot washing was a demonstration of humility.
This is a theme I would like to explore a little. Christianity teaches humility / not only in the Bible / but among the early Church Fathers. Augustine of Hippo / in his commentary on Ps 130 declared that: in humility is human life perfected. Even earlier / Clement of Rome / who died at the end of the 1st Century wrote that: Christ is with those of humble mind / not with those who exalt themselves over his flock.
But I sometimes wonder if we know what we mean by this word: humility.
In the English language we use it to signify dependence / lowliness / submission. These are all meanings that are true to the root of the word. Humus / earth / is from the same source / and you can’t get much lower than soil. Humility is a word we use to indicate diminished worth / a humble dwelling. We use it when harm is inflicted by / or upon politicians / for example / who may humiliate others / or in turn / be humiliated themselves. We have recent examples in parliament and those whose vituperative outpourings on social media have returned years later to bite them back.
But these are uses of the word that are opposed to our being able to understand the word as denoting a virtue / a Christian grace.
In contrast to the understanding of humility embraced by the world at large / the virtuous humble are the agents of their own freely-embraced humility. Their humbling is freely and even joyfully entered into so as to bring good to others / or even just to “ground” themselves. One sees this in the monastic ideal. I am interested in the positive reaction to the ideal of simplicity and humility that has been embraced by Pope Francis – whose assumed name is no accident / and our own Archbishop Justin. // In humility / as in all positive attributes / the paradigm is Jesus.
It seems to me that no grace of Christian life better illustrates the transformation of values that the life and ministry of Jesus brought about / than humility. // In so much modern usage / to be humble is to be servile / abject / defined in some dictionaries as “to grovel.” // But there is absolutely no sense of this when we look at the life and ministry of Jesus. It is strikingly different. In washing the feet of the disciples it is true that Jesus entered into the duties of a servant – or a slave. Hence the consternation of the disciples / especially Peter. Yet in performing this act Jesus clearly was not thinking of himself as servile or abject. And we can be confident he did not see the disciples as being authorities to be obeyed. The foot washing that Jesus undertook was more than an example. It was a means by which the disciples could enter into / could participate in / the Lord’s humiliation.
In Holy Week there was so very much more humiliation to come. The act of foot washing was not only an outward illustration of spiritual cleansing / it was also an example of human service. These were difficult / one might almost say impossible concepts for the disciples to grasp without help. // In our passage Jesus asked the disciples if they knew what he had done for them. He was well aware of their limitations of understanding / so he answered his own question. The teacher / their Lord / had just washed their feet and then told them that they should wash one another’s.
That command was all the more striking when it is remembered that humility was despised as weakness in the ancient world. It’s not exactly universally esteemed today / which is why the reaction to Francis and Justin is so noteworthy. The command Jesus gave was / at that time / revolutionary in the sphere of human relationships. It was revolutionary then and is scarcely less so now.
We are being shown that we ought to impart to each other the cleansing of Christ / to to serve one another in the most menial ways. We are being taught that we ought not only to use our individual and distinctive gifts / with which we have been blessed / but also share by performing the humblest services / one for another. I see this outworking here in this parish wherein over ONE HUNDRED people at St Michael’s and St Mary’s give time / effort and talent / for the greater glory of God. It is THAT which is the significance of the Maundy Thursday service in Holy Week. After all / the hallmark of the community of Jesus’ followers was ministry understood NOT as authority / but as service.
It is THAT humility that Augustine taught is: in human life perfected. And it is THAT humility that we must aspire to attain. AMEN.