We commemorate quite a lot of things on Maundy Thursday. Jesus washed His disciple’s feet, giving them–and us–the “mandate” (maundate; hence, “Maundy”) to love one another. Then He gave them His body and His blood in bread and wine, thereby making clear the meaning of what was about to happen (“this is my body given for you”; “this is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”), ensuring that His followers would continue on as a Church (“do this in remembrance of me”), establishing His continual presence with them (“this is my body. . .my blood), and instituting the means by which His followers are incorporated with Him and receive the promise of the Gospel (“given for you”). Later, Jesus prays for His Church, for His disciples and for those in the future who will believe because of their testimony–that is to say, us. Then Judas betrays Him, He is arrested, arraigned before Herod, and Peter denies Him. And the rest unfolds.
The events of Maundy Thursday are all for the benefit of His followers–washing their feet, exhorting them to love each other, giving them His body and blood in an ongoing sacrament, praying for them–whereupon one of those followers betrays Him, another denies Him, and the rest run away.
Dante’s Inferno is not so much a travelogue of Hell as it is a symbolic exploration of the nature of sin. The first levels are the sins of “incontinence,” the vices of lust and wrath and other vices of the passions that come from the lack of self-control; lower down are the sins of “violence,” in which sinners deliberately and cold-bloodedly harm their neighbors; but the lowest levels are the sins of “malice,” transgressions against relationships, against love itself. It is damnably wrong to harm strangers, but it is even worse to harm those whom you know and those who care about you. Harming your friends, the members of your family, those who care about you–such transgressions are lower and more contemptible because they are greater violations of love itself. So Dante places these offenses progressively lower in his infernal geography, in which the punishments are symbols of the crimes. The fires of Hell give way to a vast frozen lake, where those who betrayed those who loved them are encased in ice, symbolizing their cold, cold hearts.
Betraying someone who has been so good to us–who has loved us–is the most inexplicable sin, and yet it is one of the most common. How horrible it is. How low. And the way we turn against God in the other sins that we commit–God, who has given us so many gifts, so many blessings, starting with our very existence–surely is monstrous and surely makes us deserve to be in that frozen lake and worse. We all betray Christ, and for far less than 30 pieces of silver.
And yet, Jesus died for the disciples who denied and abandoned Him–then and now. Judas despaired and embraced death. But Peter was restored. And so are we. “This is my body given for you.” “This is my blood poured out for the remission of sins.”