I confess. This was the first year I participated in a Maundy Thursday service. What is Maundy Thursday you ask? It is the Thursday before Easter and it commemorates the events that took place on that night two thousand years ago. This includes: Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and His betrayal by Judas.
I guess I was always put off by the term “Maundy” which sounded like some high church, bells and incense kind of thing. To my embarrassment I found out that Maundy comes from a Latin word that means “command” and it is a reference to Jesus’ command to His disciples to love one another (John 13:34), a commandment He gave on the original Maundy Thursday.
One of my pastoral colleagues had strongly suggested that we do a Maundy Thursday service. That provoked the research that led me to understand the meaning of Maundy Thursday, which led me to participate in my first Maundy Thursday service, and to my washing the feet of some of my church members.
I think Christians are the only people who worship a God that washes dirty feet (John 13:1-17). Does Jesus washing the feet of His disciples blow your mind? If it doesn’t it probably means that you have been in the church a long time and that this account has become part of the “theological white noise” of your faith. But just imagine how shocking the foot washing must have been to the disciples and to the earliest readers of the book of John. To appreciate the food washing incident we must understand the conditions in Jesus’ time.
… the customary hospitality of the time … presupposed that guests at dinner would have bathed before coming, but their feet, dusty from walking to the host’s house would be washed by a servant before the meal. (Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004,166)
In those days people wore open sandals and the roads would be shared between humans and animals. The “toe jam” of the day would have consisted of dead skin cells, dried dung, dust and dirt in a base of sweat. Washing the feet was a dirty job but somebody had to do it, usually the most junior servant in the house. It was unthinkable that any leader would stoop down to do this. I can just imagine the stunned silence in the room as Jesus went around the room washing His disciples’ feet. The only one who spoke up was Peter (of course) and he spoke what must have been on everybody’s mind, that it was just not right for Jesus to wash their feet.
After the events of Good Friday and Easter, we now know that Jesus would do much more than wash dirty feet. He would die on the Cross for our sins and indeed if we do not allow Him to wash our feet/wash away our sins, we can be no part of Him (John 13:8-9). But there is more. Not only does Jesus wash our feet, he expects His disciples to wash each other’s feet (John 13:14-17). As my good friend L.T. Jeyachandran of RZIM reminds us, if Jesus had said, “now that I have washed your feet, you can now wash my feet,” the disciples would have been jostling to get in line to see who would get the honour of being the first to wash the master’s feet, fighting for the honour of being the most humble servant. But Jesus does not ask for them to wash His feet. Instead He asks them to wash each other’s feet.
This must have been the second shock of the evening. Just imagine the disciples looking around the room, the truth sinking in that they would have to wash the feet of some people that they do not like. Imagine Simon the Zealot, an alumnus of anti government rebel forces, having to wash the feet of Matthew the tax collector, a one time hated collaborator with the occupying forces. There must have been many such awkward match ups as the disciples washed each other’s feet. But Jesus is clear. If they were really His followers, they had to wash each others feet.
Foot washing is visceral and concrete. It’s one thing to intellectually love someone you don’t like. It’s quite another to actually touch that person and serve him or her. It is also humbling to allow someone you don’t like, wash your feet. Washing each other’s feet is therefore an exercise of grace, a recommitment to the Maundy Thursday command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34). (And I guess if your love is genuine you would do a proper job and also wash in between the toes. I am sure Jesus did, even for Judas.)
Of course the act of foot washing has lost much of its power in a day and age when we rarely wear open sandals, where we ride in cars, buses and trams, and have tarred roads. However, I have to come to see that even if it is a symbolic exercise, foot washing is worth doing especially when we are clear as to its implications. I was honoured to be allowed to wash the feet of some of my church members as part of the Maundy Thursday service. It was a powerful reminder to all, that in the church of Jesus the Footwasher, to be a leader is to be a servant. It felt good to be reminded. And yes I did try to wash in between the toes.
I am not starting a campaign for all churches to commemorate Maundy Thursday, or for all churches to have feet washing ceremonies. Indeed, Maundy Thursday and foot washing can easily become meaningless symbols if we are not careful. But we are commanded to love one another, and we are told to love, not just in word, but also with concrete action (1 John 3:18). So just how do you do “foot washing” in your church?