Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Reflection for Maundy Thursday 2023

It’s a truism to say that humans are innately social creatures. Belonging to a community was for all of our evolutionary and cultural history, necessary for survival. It’s no surprise then, that we are a species of copycats: from how we pick up words and behaviours as small children (there is no more eager house cleaner than a toddler!) to how we behave (often to our detriment) in large crowds, we pick up so much of what we do, and all that we think of as ‘normal’ from those around us. The late French philosopher Rene Girard took this insight and turned it into a theory of human behaviour, known as mimetic theory. Its most famous contribution to common discourse has been the ‘scapegoat mechanism’, through which a group tacitly agrees to release all of its pent up anger and disappointment on a common (often innocent) enemy. This is a tale as old as time, and is sadly still relevant today, from the playground to politics. It’s also clearly visible in the events of Holy Week and Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and execution. What’s interesting about all this today is that in the liturgical celebrations for Maundy Thursday, Jesus seems to be offering us a direct alternative to mimetic rivalry and violence, namely mimetic servanthood and love.

In light of mimetic theory’s insight about the importance of mimicry in learning and development, it’s interesting to see how intentional Jesus is throughout the events of his final meal with his disciples in setting an example for them. John’s Gospel stresses this deliberateness: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13.1). What did this look like? “He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet (13.4-5). These are Jesus’ last hours with his followers and he starts them off by doing the work of the lowliest of servants. He concludes by telling them in no uncertain terms to do as he has done:

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (13.14-17)

Later, Jesus continues his teaching on mimetic love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (13.34-35). While this mimetic, or ‘copying’ aspect of the life of faith comes out so clearly in this chapter, it’s really found throughout Jesus’ whole teaching: We are to forgive as we have been forgiven (and, reciprocally, are forgiven as we forgive others), and really, the whole of God’s economy of the flow of grace fits this too: we give as we have received. While we can never replicate who Jesus was — we are in fact supposed to grow as fully as possible into ourselves! — our way of life is to mimic, to be patterned off of his: We are to walk as he walked, hold our possessions with an open hand as he did, love others as he loved, be forces of reconciliation and healing as he was, serve as he served. This is why ‘we become by grace what He was by nature’; this is why we are called ‘Christians,’ that is little christs.

There is a further aspect of mimetic love that we see in the events of Maundy Thursday, namely in the words of institution of the Eucharist. As Luke put it, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19). This is a ceremonial kind of mimicry: We are to do as he did to remember him. That this was to have mimetic significance is indicated by how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians. While the part of this text that repeats the words of institution is the Epistle reading for today (11.23-26), the lectionary removes the words from their context in Paul’s letter. Paul is led to repeat these words because the Corinthians’ gatherings have become marked by division, with some leaving the common meal without having had enough to eat while others have gorged themselves. As Paul Nuechterlein has commented on this:

We might conjecture that the wealthier members are caught up in a mimetic rivalry that results in their ignoring, or “sacrificing,” the needy among them. Paul’s remedy for mimetic rivalry is mimetic servanthood. He invokes the Words of Institution, emphasizing the phrase “Do this for the remembrance of me.” I suggest his point is that a more fitting memorial for the crucified one would be to practice the kind of servanthood which he himself lived when he gave up his body and poured out his blood for all people.

So then, in his last chance to address his disciples, in a situation in which mimetic rivalry and violence was ensnaring him, Jesus explicitly offers another way of being in community. Not the way of this world, with its rivalry and performative strength, and violence against others, but the way of service and love. It’s a teaching we’re all too prone to forget. And so, on this night on which or Lord was betrayed, may we remember it, deep down in our bones and hearts, and recommit ourselves to living it out.

Our Lord came to show us a new way of being, a way of love and service. Now, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10.37).

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