Give as few orders as possible,” his father had told him once long ago. “Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.
– Frank Herbert, Dune
Some words are older than others, some carry more weight, some just carry more baggage. This is because meaning changes over time or because we heap our own experience, biases or assumptions on top of them. You do it, I do it. If we meet in the middle, sometimes things get messy. Common terms, uncommon definitions.
Maundy Thursday carries a lot of words, one Word especially and a lot of weight.
It gets it name from the Latin mandatum- from mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you) found in the Gospel of John and attributed to Jesus.
Traditionally, it is the day on which many priests renew their vows and recalls the institution of the priesthood though the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Mandatum means command. Now there’s a word which carries some weight. Sitting with no less weight is the shadow it casts- obedience. Both words tend to make people uncomfortable. This seems to be a deeper shade of true the more time passes. Command and obedience also call to mind such words as duty and obligation.
Jesus didn’t give many orders- whether seen as King, Prophet, Teacher, Son of God and so forth- in canonical and non-canonical alike- and if accepted in any of those contexts, he certainly has the place to issue them.
In much of scripture, commandments take the form of the many things you must not do. You must not kill, you must not steal, etc.
You can fulfill most of those by never leaving your house.
The Mandatum, however, is a command for what you must do- it is not a prohibition but an invitation.
You cannot fulfill it by doing nothing- it requires you to do something.
In the many lessons of the Gospels, particularly the parables- Jesus lays out contrasts and statements, that in many cases seem to be designed to lead the hearer (or readers as we are now) to the right of things. Even his many powerful and direct statements, are not commands so much as expositions.
But this is different- it does not always wait on our own understanding, it doesn’t always leave room for interpretation or nuance, and in its simplicity and practice is a life time of spiritual work.
Now, complexity is neither a weakness nor an obstacle to spiritual work and in life, nuance and debate, analysis and exploration are to be cherished and engaged.
Yet there are times where simplicity is the challenge we must face- this mandatum, this command though it is simple, can become anything but when it touches our lives and it becomes a complex challenge of its own because we ourselves are a complex challenge.
Human relationships are difficult, even with those we know, our friends, family, coworkers, neighbours- it is not easy always in time of disagreement, tragedy or difficulty to love our fellow human beings, especially the kind of love of which Christ speaks.
More challenging still is how we approach those whom we do not trust or those who regard us or whom we regard as, enemies. How about those whom we have loved and trusted but have hurt us?
Jesus said we have to love our enemies, but he didn’t say we have to like them. It is very hard to like those who have done us wrong.
So what do we do about those we may not like but are those that we are nevertheless commanded to love.
What do we do about those whom we have deep affection and regard – when tensions are high, tempers barely concealed or as all too typical this season- you’ve lost the biological lottery or drawing of straws through those sketchy cousins that decided to show up for the family Easter dinner?
There’s a reason love is a command and commandment. Christianity and Gnosticism for that matter, comes in all shapes and sizes, and there’s lots of room for debate as to what you must sign on to, what is optional, what is local, what is universal, when it comes to wearing any of these labels – but any Christianity or Gnosticism worth its salt has love at its centre.
It is an obligation, a duty, it doesn’t always require our assent but it does require our participation. Often. More times than we like, with more people than we like, and for a lot more than we like them.
The spiritual path is a lifelong journey of transformation- that it is punctuated by the experience of Gnosis does not lessen this reality and some transformations are more difficult to undertake.
This week, today and the next three days in particular, we recount the stories around the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus and we discuss and share through liturgy and ritual, the many different perspectives and accounts around the end of Jesus ministry, found both in canonical and gnostic gospels.
Today is the day we recall the Mandatum- the new commandment to love.
Tomorrow we get to see just how hard it really is, when the Apostles, who just broke bread together but a short time ago, would scatter in the face of trial and difficulty.
(All of them save one, and this is one of the many reasons why we take the name Johannite- because we are at least committed to trying, even if it means we must fail and try again)
It is a command because it is neither optional not easy and like the quote which I included at the beginning of this piece- it is one we must continually give (and consequently continually receive) until we get it right.
The poet Ovid once wrote- the drop excavates the stone, not by force but by falling often.
As Gnostics and Christians, it is our calling to be resurrected, and if you seek to step out of the Tomb of Calvary in the Holy Week narrative of your spiritual journey, you must first remove the stone.
Johannites do that by love, and love is only done by trying.
+ IOHANNES IV
Sovereign Pontiff and Patriarch