Between Amens — Understanding the ‘Mandatum’ of Jesus

Dr. Karen Shadle

I don’t know about you, but I am certainly tired of hearing about mandates. Mask mandates, vaccination mandates, capacity mandates, social distancing mandates. Which mandates are mandatory and which are voluntary? Are they constitutional? Are they ethical?

To my mind, the word mandate suggests reluctant compliance, submission to authority in a relationship in which I have little or no power. Mandates can so often seem arbitrary and overly restrictive.

As I settled into Mass on Holy Thursday at the beginning of the sacred Triduum, dutifully trying to follow the many safe-at-worship rules, I encountered this concept of mandate in a new way.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday is famous for two things. Primarily, it is known for the institution of the Eucharist, when Jesus says “This is my Body … This is my Blood.” In recounting the events of the Last Supper, there is also a secondary focus: the ritual foot-washing known as the Mandatum.

This word comes from one of the antiphons for Holy Thursday: “Mandatum novum do vobis…” (“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”)

In some traditions, Holy Thursday is known as “Maundy” Thursday. All of these words — mandate, mandatum and maundy — derive from the same root mandatus — to command or commission.

In a seemingly bizarre gesture, Jesus kneels to wash the feet of Simon Peter. The Mandatum is initially about this simple interaction between two people. But it is clear from Jesus’s explanation that its meaning is more communal in nature. This is a model; go and do the same for others.

In a stroke of irony, the Mandatum rite of washing of the feet was omitted this year, by a mandate from my office, due to concerns about physical proximity. The visual was missing, but the story in John’s Gospel was as vivid as ever.

By understanding the Mandatum, many of the restrictive rules and regulations of the last year can be seen in a new light. Mandates are more complicated than simply individual liberty versus authority, more than merely church versus state.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that human freedom flourishes when we choose what is good: “There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just” (#1733). Freedom is not doing whatever you want whenever you want. Resistance to the good — that is, continually making choices without regard for the impact on others — is self-imprisonment, the very opposite of freedom.

The Mandatum of Holy Thursday is about this uniquely Catholic understanding of freedom — freedom to live in right relationship with others by showing them the love of Jesus.

A mandate is not a command to blindly follow, but an example to emulate in a spirit of charity.

Surrounded by so many rules and restrictions, let us ground ourselves in the original mandate, the Mandatum of Jesus: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”


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