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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

I want to be a 'Maundy man'!

I have a confession to make – actually three confessions! Firstly, I am a lapsed numismatist. Before you dig out your dictionary of theology or start worrying about what heresy I’ve become embroiled in (this time?), ‘numismatist’ is the term for a coin collector (quite possibly you knew that already). My interest in coins began when I found a tray of assorted foreign and old coins in my dad’s garage (which had enough hidden recesses to hide various long-lost artefacts – the ark of the covenant, Shergar in a horsebox and Elvis Presley in a suspended animation pod could all be there waiting to be unearthed). I understand that those coins were collected by my maternal grandfather when he walked the streets of Belfast as an insurance agent, receiving payments door-to-door. I was fascinated with these items of living history. I bought coin albums, sorted out my small collection and even acquired a few additional specimens (family holidays in England invariably included trips to assorted antique shops). Although my collection is currently in hibernation, when I handle my coins their past becomes alive to me: I imagine the past uses they have been put to, I wonder whose pockets and hands they have passed through, I ponder how the foreign ones may have reached these shores? I mention my numismatic tendencies because today is Monday Thursday and, as any self-respecting numismatist knows, it is the day when Maundy money (special, highly collectable coins) are distributed as alms by the British monarch.

Now to my second confession. Although I knew the name Maundy Thursday and I am interested almost to the point of obsession (my wife would delete the ‘almost’) in the etymology of words, I didn’t know until today what ‘Maundy’ means. I was aware that the day commemorates the act of service that Jesus undertook when He washed the feet of His disciples (recorded in John 13) on the Thursday evening before the Friday on which he was crucified. Historically the king or queen apparently used to wash the feet of the people who received alms (as an aside, the last monarch to do so was apparently James II, a divisive figure in my native Northern Ireland – King Billy presumably wasn’t getting that close to the feet of his subjects, whether English or Irish!) What remains is a much tamer ceremonial alms-giving. What I didn’t know until today is that the word ‘Maundy’ is believed to be a contraction of the Latin word ‘Mandatum’, from which we get our English word ‘mandate’ and which features in the Vulgate (Latin) translation of John 13:34-35. There Jesus says:

A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

And my final confession? This one comes much closer to a true confession. I have shamefully neglected the importance of Maundy Thursday. The Church historically knew it was an important date – they called it variously Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday and Thursday of Mysteries (or so Wikipedia tells me!) Of course, it’s not the day itself that is significant, but the mandate, or commandment, that it commemorates. The wonderful thing about Jesus is that he enacted His words – there was a seamless relationship between truth He declared and truth demonstrated by Him. Nowhere is this more clear than in John 13. His love for His disciples was shown to its full extent as He took the basin and towel, but He proceeded to teach them important truths about life, faith and His relationship to the Father and the Spirit (recorded in chapters 14 to 16 of John’s gospel). We too often struggle to integrate words and deeds, theology and service, head and hands, but Jesus challenges us to love in words and actions. This new commandment given by Jesus is the bedrock of Christian community. It is expounded in John’s first letter, especially in the following verses:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

As the ageing apostle wrote this, he must surely have thought back to that Thursday evening in the upper room when Jesus washed his feet and to His supreme act of love, His death on the cross, that followed a matter of hours later. Maundy is a principle not just for one Thursday in the year – it is a mandate for all of life. It’s also a principle that cannot be fulfilled through me telling others I love them or even passing my own version of ‘Maundy money’ to them (donations to charities aren’t enough). It entails eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand contact with real people in real need. It turns us outside our selves to tangible acts of compassion that begin within the family of believers, but which cannot be confined only to our brothers and sisters. Jesus gave us this command, He set the example of what following it entails, He died the death that in which the self-loving hypocrite that I am without Him also finds its death, and He rose again to give me the life in the Spirit through which even I can be transformed into a selfless servant. I want to follow Christ’s mandate and to become a ‘Maundy man’!

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