Maundy Thursday 2011

 

 

Some words from a familiar hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,

and lowliness become my inner clothing.

 

Come down, O Love divine” is based on an Italian hymn by a man called Bianco da Siena, who was a religious in Tuscany in the 15th century. It’s very popular, partly because of the lovely tune; but it’s also very profound. In fact, it is a distillation of monastic, especially Eastern, spirituality.

In the lines I quoted, it is as if we are looking at the monastic dress and seeing a symbolic meaning in the garments.  “Let holy charity mine outward vesture be“. St Paul writes to the Colossians: “Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony“. (Col 3:14)

Charity – the unselfish generous love that Paul extols in 1 Corinthians 13 – is to be the outer garment of the Christian, the interface between Christian and Christian. It is an outer garment, to be seen by all. In the musical “Oklahoma” there is a song called “Pore Judd is dead” which parodies the funeral sermon for an unpopular farm-hand.  The “preacher” says, “He loved everything and every body, but he never let on, so nobody ever knowed.” Not much point in loving your neighbour if you don’t let them know – and I don’t mean talking about it, but showing it in your attitude and behaviour. That outer, all-covering cloak of charity binds the Christian community together.

 

 

Lowliness, on the other hand, is an inner garment. I know that nowadays the distinction between inner and outer is not so clear – some undergarments are meant to be seen, it seems, by every Tom, Dick and Harry – but I don’t think that is what is in the hymnwriter’s mind. Lowliness – forgetfulness of self – is essentially a hidden, inner, garment. Ostentatious humility is no humility. True lowliness is a foundation garment that supports the outer vesture of charity. It is only when we set self aside in lowliness that we make room to love others unselfishly. Lowliness and charity go together in the Christian character.

 

We see this pattern in tonight’s Gospel, as Jesus washes the disciples’ feet in a great act of charity. Temporal charity, in refreshing and soothing and cleaning tired and sore feet – not to be underestimated, for we show our love for each other most clearly in ordinary acts of kindness. But spiritual charity too, for Jesus is teaching them the importance of service. The one who came, not to be served, but to serve, reveals an inner core of lowliness. “Let this mind be in you,” says St Paul, “which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not cling to equality with God; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men; and being found in human form. he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2).

 

Charity and lowliness. At the end of this service, we will go with Jesus into the garden of Gethsemane, where we will hear him wrestle in prayer as he gets ready for his passion. His whole self revolts at the prospect – how could it be otherwise? “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me“. Yet he courageously sets self aside: “Not what I want, but what you want – your will be done“. It is this lowliness that makes it possible for him to fill the Cross with such charity, such self-forgetting love for us. For the pattern that we see tonight, we will see again tomorrow, as we walk with Jesus to Calvary and beyond. God comes to us in the utmost lowliness and with the utmost love.

 

 

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