The Heart of Maundy Thursday

In the ritual washing of feet, we show ourselves, with love, as willing to take on the servant’s role. 

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Jesus pours water from a clay pot

Throughout the gospels, Jesus stresses again and again the importance of servanthood. “Many who are first will be last,” He said “and many who are last will be first,” a pronouncement that surely must have had the disciples scratching their heads.

On Maundy Thursday He did something that made it visually clear.

First of all that word, Maundy, probably comes from the Latin Mandatum, the first word in the Biblical text for the day, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (John 13:34)

On that Holy Thursday, Christ gathered with the disciples in the upper room, broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”  

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He took the cup of wine after the meal and shared it with them, saying, “This cup is the new covenant by My blood, which is poured out for you.” This ritual sharing is something we honor when we celebrate Communion throughout the year.

But according to the Gospel of John, He also did something that night that many churches reenact on Maundy Thursday. He washed the disciples’ feet.

Think about how dirty feet would have gotten in that era before asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, underground sewers and lace-up sneakers. To wash someone’s sandaled feet would be to know exactly where they had walked. To see it and smell it.

What’s more, Jesus was their leader, their Teacher, their King, their Messiah. That He would wash feet was a complete reversal of roles. It made Peter uncomfortable enough that he exclaimed, “No! You will never wash my feet.”

Over the years our pastor has always washed feet on Maundy Thursday and quite frankly, I’ve felt a little like Peter.

No thanks, not my feet. To take off your shoes and socks in the middle of service? With my luck, I’d probably find I’m wearing a pair of old socks with holes in them.

Last year, though, I caved and let my feet be washed. Yes, it was a little awkward–untying double-knotted laces in a folding chair at the front of the church–but it was also humbling. Allowing myself to be served.

And then I discovered, once you get your feet washed and dried (there is always someone at hand with a clean towel), you kneel and wash and dry someone else’s feet.

I got to wash and dry my friend John’s feet. I don’t remember any holes in his socks, but I do remember being grateful to show him, in this holy way, how thankful I was for all that he did as a dad, a husband, a fellow church member. He deserved first-rate service.

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet,” Jesus said.

Isn’t that what it is to love each other, to be willing to do the dirty work, to take on the servant’s role? To know what someone’s life is like because you have seen and smelled their struggles at the level of their shoes?

“Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with Me,” Jesus told Peter.

“Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” Peter said. What a way to prepare for Easter.

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