The clue is in the title of the day: Maundy. It is from the Latin “mandatum,”meaning a command. Its relatives in modern English are words like mandate and mandatory. It lives in the Romance languages as well (such as “mandatario,” the incumbent president, who is in charge, and “mando,” command).
It is Jesus who commands on this day, most unusual for him. Virtually unique among spiritual leaders and prophets, he pronounces few rules or commands. His yoke is easy, he says. His teaching is in the context of love, not law.
But he commands this: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). It is an unqualified, unmitigated imperative. Not “if you get to it” or “if it feels right” or “if it’s helpful” or “if you happen to think of it” or even “if you need it.” Instead, just do it, in remembrance.
You can trace the obedience to the command in every Sunday since, through today and no doubt for as long as time lasts in the future, and then beyond. Sometimes, the trail is faint and vague, as befits comments of people involved in an activity carrying the death penalty if discovered. But it is always there. And three centuries later, when the Church emerges from the shadows of illegality into the full light of Imperial approval, the Eucharist emerges with her, as the center of her life, the power of her strength and the fulfillment of her purpose.
It may be asked why Sunday is the day chosen, since it is Maundy Thursday. This requires an understanding of two precepts. The first is that Sunday is the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week honored by Christ’s central act of all history. The second precept is that the actions from Thursday through Sunday in Holy Week constitute a single unit of achievement. Even from the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, there is an inseparable unity of purpose in what takes place. In the Sunday Eucharist, the action of the entire week culminating in Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross and resurrection from dead is “bundled” and delivered to us sacramentally. From the very beginning, the Church understood the Sunday Eucharist was the vehicle by which we participated in the Cross and Supper, as well as the Resurrection. Indeed, without the sacrifice of the Cross, the Resurrection would mean terror for us, the righteous judgement which we deserve. Without the Supper, there would, of course, be no Eucharist. It all belongs together. The importance can perhaps be understood even by measurement of space. Although the Gospels cover the four intense years of Jesus’ earthly ministry and a bit more, a fourth of their content is taken up by the one week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
Thus, we “do this in remembrance.” Memory itself is crucial to our sense of being, and it is tragic when someone loses the continuity of self stored in the memory. Our physical self is in constant change, the cells coming and going over time. Photos of me today are quite different from years ago, and the person smiling in that shot from childhood or youth is now unrecognizable in the being of today. Memory is the thread which knits the years together and makes it possible to have a sense of continuity of self.
In Jewish thought, to be remembered has been important as well, a continuity beyond self. We all have people who we remember, in family, in communities, among friends and in the workplace, people who one way or another have left their mark on us and are remembered. To gather to remember, in kadush or otherwise, is part of this for Judaism. We also, when we gather, remember those not present, those who were part of the shared past. It is a routine part of our liturgy to remember the saints, both those acknowledged by the whole Church and those known only to a local group (but nevertheless, just as fully saints).
As an historian, I would remind you that this is what history, and in particular historiography, is. It is the expressed shared memory of those who are past and their actions. It is an American affliction to suffer from a collective lack of interest in the shared memory. It leads to low immunity to mythological fables of those who would instill a lie where shared truth should be, and an inability to avoid repeated mistakes (“those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it”).
As a catholic, I would remind you that the affliction includes a contempt for Tradition, the shared memory of Faith. It is Protestant arrogance to assume one does not need the past, that Christianity dropped from heaven into America like the Book of Mormon is alleged to have done, fully formed in its Protestant Reformed condition and needing only the glasses of conversion to read. There are indeed many American Catholics with a similar view, seeing the current institution as a mechanism which operates the Faith, and ignoring the centuries of formation, the memory which gives it meaning.
Some understand the mandate, “Do this in remembrance of me” to mean they should have a sweet memorial supper to remember a great prophet and teacher. Those of us who understand “do this” in the historic sense of the Fathers to be the actualization of the memory producing the reality of the presence among us tend to overreact to those whose Lord’s Suppers are no more than memorials of a long-gone prophet and teacher. As a result, we do not emphasize the teaching of the Gospel in reporting the command.
In our absorption with, and into, the Body and Blood of Christ truly present among us, we often miss the mandate to do it in remembrance. This act of Eucharist does not simply deliver the forgiveness, community and love we need. It also opens for us the world of memory, to go all the way back through the centuries, to commemorate all the saints, some of whom we can name, but most of whom remain personally unknown to us. Yet we stand upon the foundation they have laid, we are the beneficiaries of what they struggled to pass on to us, and in the company with all the saints, we join with them in celebrating the commanded feast, outside of the boundaries of time and space.
Likewise, in remembering Jesus, we recall him, call him once again, to be present with us as he was on the occasion of that First Supper (“Last” Supper is really incorrect, as it is here he institutes that which he commands us to do). That call corresponds with the “epiclesis,” literally the “calling upon” of the Holy Spirit. Together, in their seamless unity, they respond to the call, as we respond to the mandate, and we are joined with them in the Eucharistic action of remembrance made real. So, rather than de-emphasizing remembrance in reaction to Zwinglians and such ilk, we instead need to teach what real remembrance means.
As individuals, it is memory that confirms our continuity and reality. As communities, it is history, shared memory, that confirms our heritage as a people, for better or worse. As Christians, it is Tradition, the shared memory of Faith, which produces “paradosis,” the living Truth which I have received and pass on to those who come after, that mandates us to “do this” Eucharistic act which recalls the central historical acts of Holy Week, done for you and I.