On Maundy Thursday, we gather for the second service of Holy Week, which marks Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples prior to his arrest by the Jewish leaders. On this night, the apostle John recorded that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave his disciples both the model for the Eucharist and a “new command” to love each other as Jesus loved them (John 13:34).
Maundy is a word derived from the Latin which means “mandate” or “command.” Jesus models the command he gave to his disciples, to love one another, in the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. While we celebrate this last supper weekly, Maundy Thursday gives us a unique opportunity to imitate Jesus and show his love to one another by washing each others’ feet.
Jesus takes on the position of a menial slave in the act of foot washing. This would have been unusual behavior for a rabbi at that time—a rabbi should have humility but never give up his station of authority. Jesus adorns himself as a slave and washes his disciples’ feet. Although it was the custom to wash the feet of one's guests before dinner, normally the disciples would have been the ones serving their master. Jesus’ behavior is different in order to show his disciples how his Kingdom has turned social norms upside down. The church continues this practice on Maundy Thursday – the foot washing after the reading of the Gospel and the sermon was a common practice by the fourth century AD.
When the Eucharist is celebrated on Maundy Thursday, it is the last Eucharist meal consecrated until the Easter Vigil. The priest consecrates elements for this service and reserves enough bread and wine for Eucharist on Good Friday. Customarily, Maundy Thursday extends into an all-night prayer vigil, commemorating Jesus’ request that his disciples stay up praying with him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest.
The Maundy Thursday service invites us to allow Jesus into our whole lives. Jesus shows his tender love for us through the vulnerability of washing our feet. Jesus washes us of our sin through his broken body and his blood spilled out on the cross through the sacrament of Communion. This service is intensely embodied – we are invited to see, hear, and feel Jesus with us.
In the midst of a worship service it feels both bizarre and startlingly vulnerable to strip off our shoes and socks and place our feet in a basin of water. The foot washing portion of the service forces us to be exposed and vulnerable. It is in that place that we can receive healing and the fullness of the Lord Jesus' love for us.
In the Gospel reading for this service, the disciple Peter is indignant when Jesus asks to wash his feet. Either Peter does not want his Lord to stoop to such a lowly place, or he does not want to show Jesus his dirty feet (or both!). How easy it is to sympathize with Peter in this moment. But instead of appreciating Peter’s concern for him, Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).
Jesus displays his incredible humility and the fullness of his humanity – he is not above us or our bodies. Jesus became one of us, and a servant to us, in order that he might bring us into full relationship with God the Father—that we might share eternal life with him. Jesus’ servanthood, seen in the washing of feet, is then fully realized in his death on the cross.