Maundy Thursday

A few weeks ago, the clergy and administrator at the Church of the Heavenly Rest met with representatives of the altar guild to discuss the logistics of our Maundy Thursday service.  I expected the meeting to last around 20 minutes; it took an hour and half.  The meeting was long, not (only) due to our collective propensity to ramble, but because the Maundy Thursday service is particularly complex.  Feet need to be washed (in a rite traditionally known as the pedilavium, literally “foot wash”), so the members of the altar guild have to be ready with basins, pitchers of water, and stacks of towels.  The altar needs to be stripped, so acolytes have to be assigned to remove our various liturgical accoutrements from the nave.  The Sacrament needs to be processed to the altar of repose, so we have to figure out where to put the Body and Blood of the Lord in the meantime.  As our heads swirled with these liturgical minutiae, I wondered whether it really had to be so difficult.  Why does Maundy Thursday always feel so awkward?

On one level, Maundy Thursday feels awkward because it is awkward.  Logistical challenges aside, it seems that the Maundy Thursday liturgy is designed to make us a little uncomfortable.  In 21st century American culture, we don’t typically allow people to touch our feet, especially in the early days of spring before we’ve had an opportunity to make them pretty for sandal season.  Yet the central rite of Maundy Thursday involves exposing an intimate part of ourselves to a relative stranger.  And in many ways, this uncomfortable moment doesn’t serve any practical purpose.  As one of my seminary colleagues has pointed out, washing feet on Maundy Thursday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.  In the first century, footwashing was an important gesture of hospitality.  People wore sandals and walked everywhere on dusty roads.  When hosts (or their servants) took the calloused, dirty feet of their guests in their hands and washed them, they were saying, “You’re done walking for a while; sit down and be at ease: you are welcome here.”  In our world, this doesn’t make any sense.  Most of us drive cars to our destinations, and even those of us who walk don’t walk particularly far.  Moreover, sidewalks are not nearly as dusty as ancient roads.  In other words, Maundy Thursday is that day that we do this incredibly awkward thing that serves no practical purpose and whose symbolic meaning has been all but forgotten.  It might seem that we should abandon the pedilavium in favor of some other gesture of hospitality: maybe we could offer cups of coffee or shoe shines (if we want to stay in the area of the feet). 

Part of the beauty of Maundy Thursday, however, is its awkwardness.  The fact that Maundy Thursday contains a rite that we do not perform any other day of the year highlights the radical nature of the other rite whose institution we observe and celebrate on Maundy Thursday: the Eucharist.  When we celebrate the Eucharist week in and week out, it’s easy to forget the incredible claim that we make when we share in the Lord’s supper.  As Paul observes in 1 Corinthians 11 (from which we will read tonight), the Eucharist is fundamentally a proclamation of our Lord’s death.  The Eucharist is an acknowledgement of the immutable fact that God chose to bring about our redemption through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, the Eucharist is an acknowledgment of the fact that we have done nothing to deserve the redemption brought about by our Lord’s Passion.  This is why, when we celebrate Holy Communion, we remember that the Lord’s supper was instituted “on the night Jesus was betrayed.”  Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by all of his closest friends: Judas handed him over to death, Peter denied knowing him, and all of the other disciples deserted Jesus and fled (Jesus predicts every one of these events in the gospel accounts).  Nevertheless, Jesus gave himself to us.  By holding up a piece of bread and saying “This is my body,” Jesus surrenders himself, hands himself over in order to nullify our betrayal.  By giving himself freely to death on a cross, Jesus implicitly forgives our betrayal even before we are able to betray him.  Jesus shows us the true meaning of love by sacrificing his very life so that sin would lose its power over us.  The awkward uniqueness of Maundy Thursday reminds us that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ gives himself to us even though we were willing to betray him.

Most liturgical theologians agree that “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum (commandment), a reference to Jesus’ statement in John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  This might seem to be a relatively simple commandment, but the reality is that Jesus loved us to the point of laying down his life for his friends.  Jesus’ commandment calls each and every one of us to love sacrificially.  We are called to think of others before we think of ourselves.  How are you loving sacrificially in your community?  How are you giving yourself to others?  I invite you to use this Maundy Thursday to reflect on how you might follow Jesus’ commandment and show God’s immense love to the world.

5 thoughts on “Maundy Thursday

  1. Good work and well exegeted.

    It is awkward. I guess that’s the point. But it’s awkward for us in a different way than it was awkward for the disciples. What is the modern equivalent of a teacher/mentor washing feet? I don’t think “coffee” or “shoe-shines” is it. And I think foot-washing is lost on us.

    In your post you obscure and move past the foot-washing by rightfully focusing on the Eucharist. Does the modern use of foot-washing do the opposite: obscuring the Eucharist with the awkwardness of foot-washing?


    1. On the contrary, I think that the awkwardness of the pedilavium gives us an opportunity to reflect on the “awkwardness,” or at least the strangeness of proclaiming the death of the Lord. I realize that “shoe shines” and “coffee” are inadequate analogies for the foot-washing, but the fact is that we do not have any ritualized acts of hospitality in our culture, which is, of course, your initial point. What I am trying to say is that if all the pedilavium does is point us to the strangeness inherent in the Eucharist, then it is a worthwhile ritual.

  2. We used to sing “. . . and they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but the reality has often been far from that Christlike love, especially when it comes to doctrinal differences. Here in Italy, the evangelical Christians work very hard at being different from the Catholic church–even to the point that some refuse to celebrate certain holy days that they perceive to be “Catholic.” Most of them are ex-Catholics, many of whom are bitter against the Catholic church. And in their bitterness they end up offending their more traditional spiritual siblings. If we are ever to achieve true unity that glorifies God, then we must put aside our prejudices, overlook petty differences, and celebrate what we have in common: Jesus Christ. Then they really will know we are Christians by our love for one another.
    Thanks for another great post!

  3. What a beautiful service tonight. My first time to experience Maundy Thursday in this way and to participate in the foot washing.

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