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Maundy Thursday's liberating idea


Painting by Ford Madox Brown, at the Tate.

Britain's sovereigns were particularly identified with the liturgy for the Maundy Thursday service, which is celebrated today. Maundy is the charming English abbreviation of Mandatum, the Lord's command to love.

According to the Gospel of Luke, a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was to be considered the greatest. Jesus gave to them and to us one of the most radical ideas of all time.

Jesus said, The kings of the Gentiles boss the people, and call themselves their benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (Luke 22: 24-27).

The idea of the servant king - of a leader who serves the people and defends liberty and fair play is radical and liberating and still too rare in this world today.

The idea is enshrined in Britain's Coronation Ceremony and Coronation Oath. On a number of occasions Brits rid themselves of kings who had trashed their Coronation covenants.

In their Maundy Thursday ceremony, English kings followed the example of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples. Kings washed the feet of the poor.

At Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, HM Queen Elizabeth handed out Maundy money to pensioners who have worked tirelessly for their communities. She did this as a sign that a Christian monarch is to serve her people.

The radiant meaning of the ceremony has eluded many kings, and eludes prime ministers and presidents today.

They are not to rule us, they are not to tell us how to think and feel and live, and they are not to be our supposed 'benefactors'. They are to serve us.

That is the mandate of representative, constitutional government.

Love! A mandate and a joy.

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