Reflections from the Chaplain: Maundy Thursday – Love bade me welcome
Thinking about how I might provide the Exeter College community with spiritual support, in my role as chaplain, has proven difficult during the COVID-19 crisis. Here is my latest reflection, delivered not in Chapel, but from my home in Germany. It is accompanied by a recording from the College Choir, which you can listen to by clicking on the play icon below. If you would like to receive more reflections by email please let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can read all of my recent reflections and listen to the accompanying pieces of music by clicking here.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
This poem, entitled Love III, was penned by George Herbert ( 1593 – 1639). Herbert was the son of a minor aristocrat on the Welsh/ English borders, and after studying at Cambridge, and a brief time at the court of James I and in Parliament, he eschewed public life and took up a parish, Bemerton, near Salisbury, where he ministered, lived, and wrote poetry. Herbert’s life was short: he died in 1633, aged 39. Most of his poetry was published posthumously, collected together by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, and published under the title ‘The Temple’.
Love III is an invitation: an invitation to disregard our fears and anxieties, our perceived short-comings, and to take up the invitation to ‘sit and eat’. This poem personifies love, whose loving goes beyond our limitations and imaginings. It is a love which is comforting and supportive, and despite our hesitations ‘ ‘love took my hand’.
I share this poem today because it helps to explore what Maundy Thursday means. Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin, ‘mandatum’, mandate, which is taken from one of the readings for today: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you”(John 13. 34). But note that this is a mandate, this is a requirement, this is not optional. The message of Holy Week is one of overflowing love – of love that is accepting, of love that is required. And this commandment to love is even more wondrous given the context of when it was said.
Maundy Thursday is the day before Christ dies. It focuses on two locations: the upper room, and the garden of Gethsemane. Christ is taken from the Greek for anointed one, and so, on the day before he dies, this title is symbolically given to Jesus: whilst at dinner, a woman pours a box of precious ointment on Jesus’s head, thus anointing him. It is an act of preparation – the kingship of Christ is one of justice, mercy, hope, peace, and love, where he will be shown to the peoples not on a velvet and gold throne, but on a wooden cross.
Stanley Spencer’s ‘Last Supper’, painted in 1920 captures two of the important acts of this day. Jesus and his disciples have gathered in an upper room to share the Passover meal. But, a first glance at the picture shows the dominance of the feet: they stick out from angularly sculpted garments – rows of toes, some with bunions, others showing signs of arthritis. But they are sparklingly clean; cleansed, and relaxed whilst the meal happens. Footwashing is a ritual foreign to many of us today, but in the dusty Levant it was a necessary preparation for social interaction; a way of honouring the visitor, the outsider, the guest. We can see hints of Herbert’s poem in this act of preparation. It is from this act that Maundy Thursday gets its name – Christ gives the command to love one another; a love which he demonstrated through the washing of feet. Ritualism is strong today, because the Passover, the meal shared was to become, as recorded by St Paul, the roots of the Christian Eucharist, where the breaking of bread and sharing of wine came to symbolise the body and blood of Christ, and by doing is an act of remembering Christ.
After the meal the gospels tell us that Christ and his disciples retreated to the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ prayed, whilst the disciples – to Jesus’ consternation – slept. After some time, we read that the chief priests and a rabble, led by the disciple, Judas Iscariot (who had been at the meal earlier in the evening) came out to Gethsemane to arrest him.
Maundy Thursday is a day of contrasts: the intimacy of service and love; the betrayal by a friend, the eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s life; the beginnings of the plot to kill him. Yet through all of this, it is the command, the mandate to love that is most powerful. Which makes me think that love is, as written in the Song of Solomon,” that love is stronger than death; that many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 5). And so we should hold on to this love, even when we feel that we are drowning in fear or in cabin fever, or in frustration that we cannot physically be with those we love. But there is also a harsh message from today: this love is in the context of a pandemic where hundreds of thousands are dying; where many countries are in lock down, where life can’t go on as normal. And yet, despite these terrifying facts, people are ignoring advice to stay at home, to minimise contact with others. The Judas Iscariot figure lives in our society. That is the reality of the world. But into this is the mandate to love, and, loving is difficult; it requires huge amounts of grace and patience, of perseverance, and occasionally strong words to make sure that love can flourish.
The text of today’s anthem comes from the liturgy for Maundy Thursday. It’s often used, too for weddings, and in this time of confused and heightened emotions, it’s worth sharing:
Ubi Caritas et amor Deus ibi est
Congregavit nos in unum Christ amor.
Exsultemus et in ipso jucundemur
Timeamus et amemus deum vivum
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero
Where charity and love are, God is there.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us exult, and in him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other.
This recording (available to listen to towards the top of this web page) is from the choir’s 2019 CD, Mater Mundi under the direction of Bartosz Thiede, and the setting of Ubi caritas is by Norwegian born Ola Gjellio.
Reverend Andrew Allen 9.iv.20