Quoth man: “You bade me conquer harm
With no strength but this weak right arm.
“I would ride to war with a glad consent
Were I, as You, omnipotent.”
God said: “You show but little sense;
What triumph is there for omnipotence?”
Said man: “If You think it well to be
Such a thing as I, make trial and see.”
God answered him: “And if I do,
I’ll prove Me a better Man than you.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Triumph of Christ, in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918).
Dorothy Sayers spent nine years of her life as an advertiser and copywriter. The record shows she was very good at her job. For instance, without her ingenuity, you likely never would have seen a Guinness Toucan. And some say it was she who first uttered the now-proverbial phrase “it pays to advertise.”
So I wonder what she would have said about the English Church’s branding of this day — which has a plausible claim to be the most significant day on the Christian calendar — as Maundy (“Commandment”) Thursday. On this day Jesus did nothing less than institute the Lord’s Supper, wash the disciples’ feet, lay claim to the title “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” promise to send the Holy Spirit, pray His High Priestly Prayer, sweat blood in Gethsemane, suffer betrayal by Judas, and submit to arrest by the Judean authorities. With so much extraordinary material to work with, to call the day “Commandment Thursday” looks like shooting yourself in the foot, at least from a branding standpoint.
Yet I cannot help but think that Ms. Sayers, as one who deeply appreciated the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth, immediately would have gotten the significance of the day’s branding, and approved it out of more than just respect for her mother Church. For in issuing the commandment after which this day is named — “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (1) — Jesus took on board all the extraordinary acts listed above, identifying His own love with the commandment. He made new Moses’s old “love your neighbor as yourself” (2) not by altering its content, but by actually carrying it out: loving His own to the end (3), to use John’s shorthand. He is, after all, the incarnate Word.
And when the incarnate Word loves His own to the utmost, what does it look like? It looks like breaking bread and blessing wine, like humbling yourself to set aside your outer garments to do a slave’s job, like washing the feet of your own. It looks like teaching, comforting, and praying for your own before you must leave them. It looks like sweating blood in Gethsemane.
Lent invites us to look into a time telescope: to see the Lord Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness following his baptism, and, through Him, to see the great event those forty days recapitulate: Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. In this telescope we see that in his fast, Jesus does for Israel what Israel did not do: make it through the wilderness without grumbling. As Lent concludes in Passiontide, and especially on Maundy Thursday, we look into a second time telescope, which focuses more narrowly, upon one Man in a Garden. He has a decision to make about an erring Bride and a Tree. The Man hears a simple question: “Where are you?” His response will reveal everything there is to know about the quality of his love; and the quality of his love will have its full effect.
(1) St John 13:34 (ESV); (2) Leviticus 19:18; (3) St John 13:1.