Image: St Cross
St Cross is an ancient almshouse, which stands beside the water meadows of the River Itchen. It was built in 1136 by Henry de Blois, bishop of Winchester, who is said to have been inspired by a starving girl he encountered in the meadow. He housed thirteen poor men and fed one hundred local people a day, and the custom has continued to this day. Older men without means still live here, and Wayfarer's Dole, a morsel of bread and a horn of beer, is still distributed.
The church is a crusaders' chapel, with "lofty vaults and heavy piers" (Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches). During the Maundy Thursday service, the stone tower, full of light by day, echoed with the voices of sopranos and the quiet words of the former Navy chaplain.
He recalled the laughter on Christmas Day when, throughout the armed services, the officers serve the men, even the captain wearing an apron around his waist and a napkin on his arm, serving the young sailors. This, he thought, was an equivalent of the idea of Maundy Thursday.
British 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 commandment to love.)
According to the Gospel of Luke, a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was to be considered greatest. Jesus gave to them and to us one of the most radical ideas of all time: 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves 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).
In the Maundy Thursday ceremony, kings followed the example of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples, and washed the feet of the poor. In York, The Queen handed out Maundy money to pensioners from all over the country as a sign that the monarch is to serve her people.
The radiant meaning of the ceremony has eluded some kings, and eludes some 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.
To love is our mandate and joy as well.