When I was a child, I remember being confused about some of the things we did—or didn’t do—at church. As I reflected on Maundy Thursday these past few days, two of them have been retrieved out of deep memory. First, I remember wondering what on earth “Maundy Thursday” meant. Second, I remember being curious about why Christians are compelled, from time to time, to wash one another’s feet. Today I want to reflect a bit on these questions that once baffled me.

Growing up in a fairly traditional congregation in South Carolina, I partook in a variety of Holy Week activities each spring. It was part of our annual religious clockwork. Holy Week, for those who don’t know, is the final segment of Lent. It marks the seven-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. Holy Week is when the Last Supper, the trial, and the crucifixion of Jesus are brought to the fore of the church’s collective memory. Maundy Thursday falls in this week.

Maundy – Or Did You Mean Monday?

As I said, when I was young, I was somewhat perplexed by the label “Maundy Thursday”. I think I must have been 15 or 16 before I finally figured out what it meant. Before that, I just thought that Monday decided to marry Thursday. Then, so as to be equitable, they opted for a hyphenated last name. Needless to say, this silly musing was finally displaced. I learned that Maundy is not Monday misspelled but rather an archaic English word that originates with the Latin term mandatum. You don’t have to be an etymological genius to figure out what this Latin term signifies: mandate or commandment. Herein lies the clue to the meaning of Maundy Thursday.

Maundy, or mandate, is a shorthand reference to the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s the beginning of John’s account of the disciples’ Last Supper with Jesus. At the centre of this account is a special mandate from Jesus for his people. A new commandment, for the church.

Time for a Foot Scrub!

As John recounts this solemn, final meal, he tells us by way of preface that Jesus, “having loved his own … loved them to the end.” As chapter 13 progresses, this love quickly takes concrete expression. You see John—unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s rendition of the Last Supper—focuses less on the meal (the bread and wine signifying Jesus’ body and blood) and more on something else: foot washing. John tells us that Jesus washed his feet and the feet of all the disciples in the Upper Room on that fateful evening. If you’re a regular person, this seems a bit odd and mysterious. If you’re podophobic, it seems downright dreadful!

In those times, the act of foot washing was loaded with meaning. It denoted serious self-deprecating service to another. That’s why Peter—who had a reputation for speaking before thinking—tried to forbid Jesus from washing his feet. For Peter, Jesus’ gesture was absolutely out of line. Inappropriate. Taboo. Masters don’t wash their followers’ feet — it’s the other way around! Jesus, of course, is always subverting familiar customs and cultural conventions. So too on this occasion! He would have none of Peter’s ridiculousness, well-intended as it may have been. He looked Peter square in the eye and said something to the tune of ‘No wash, no friend’! And that was that. Everyone’s toes and soles got scrubbed — jams, corns, callouses and all.

The key detail of John 13, however, is how Jesus uses the act of foot washing to make a point about what it means to be a Christian. This comes in verse 14: “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This same mandate takes a slightly more generalized, but equally profound form, in verse 34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” That’s the mandate at the root of Maundy Thursday. More importantly, it’s the mandate that’s to govern the whole of Christian life.

Jesus: A Peculiar Type of Master

You see, in Jesus Christ, we discover that God does not approach us with orders that we slave after him. To the contrary, Jesus shows us that God’s entry into human history revolves around service and gift and saving … at great cost. The God that speaks to us in Jesus is a God who says ‘I love you’ first. This is how God does relationship with us. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either a knave or a fool.

The mandate at the centre of Maundy Thursday—and the arresting act of service with which Jesus introduces it—is nothing more than a call for us to emulate God. The logic is simple: we are to love others in a way that mirrors God’s acts of love for us. Love that is willing to sacrifice—ego, money, indulgence, reputation, dreams, and a thousand other things that can inhibit us in following Jesus’ example. Love that delights more in serving than in being served. Love that is not passive but proactive and intentional.

Learning by Doing

“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13.17)

This new command is one of the things the church remembers in a very vivid way, every year during Holy Week. This is why we wash each other’s feet at our annual Maundy Thursday service. Sure, foot washing is a symbolic gesture. But it’s a gesture that continues to effectively capture the spirit of Jesus’ mandate that we love one another as he has loved us. Even though foot washing doesn’t bear the same cultural connotations now as in Jesus’ time, it’s still a deed that gets us on our knees and into the less-than-attractive parts of each other’s lives. In short, it’s an act that helps us to enter into a posture of humble service, and that is marked by self-forgetfulness and an others-oriented ethos. If you want to relate intimately with Jesus, foot washing can still be a great place to begin. This is why Christians do it around Eastertime year after year. Perhaps we should do it more regularly.

“For I am giving you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” – Jesus (John 13.15)

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