The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
March 29, 2018
Tonight we have come to Maundy Thursday, the first of the three great days of preparation for Easter—the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—moving into the Great Vigil, Easter itself. What a strange word, Maundy. Someone asked me last week, “What does Maundy mean, anyway?” It’s a good question—after all, it’s a word you’re likely to hear only today! One generally accepted explanation is that Maundy is a English corruption of the Latin word “mandatum” which appears in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible, in John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, [a mandatum novum], that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This passage comes immediately after the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as an example, he tells them, of how to serve one another.
The Economist this week has another explanation—that the baskets used for almsgiving were called by an old English word maunde. That’s possible, too, I suppose—after all, monarchs in England have for centuries observed this day with both footwashing, as Elizabeth I did, and almsgiving, as Elizabeth II has done today at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
So Maundy Thursday is associated with almsgiving and with footwashing—but it is also from its very earliest days associated with the Eucharist—the institution of the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass—as our readings from Corinthians and from the gospel of Luke recall in our minds—that moment at which Jesus takes bread at table, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19)
Tonight is the night in which we will celebrate our Lord’s gift of the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Eucharist—and we’ll celebrate that sacrament, as he taught us to do, in just a few moments. But first, since it’s Maundy Thursday, we’ll also wash feet.
Now, people have different reactions to this. I’ll bet you just had a particular internal emotional reaction yourself, even, when I mentioned washing feet.
Perhaps your response was a warm, pleasant one—something about how nice it is to serve and be served—a positive association with doing something that Jesus did with his disciples.
Or maybe your reaction was more along the lines of, “There is no way I am leaving my pew and taking off my shoes for some stranger to wash my feet. Yuk. Gross.”
Regardless of how you feel about footwashing, and believe me, folks have feelings about it—the practice is ancient and has gained a revival in the liturgical renewal movement of which our 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a part. We first see the rite in the early and medieval church, often as practiced as a reversal of authority—kings would wash the feet of their subjects; abbots would wash the feet of monks. Queen Elizabeth I washed the feet of the poor at Westminster. And now Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, nondenominational Christians, and even Presbyterians and Baptists have gotten on board with this practice, this acting out of the thing that Jesus does with his disciples in the gospel of John.
It’s easy to see why the rite is so popular: from Jesus’s own explanation, it’s an act designed to show us the importance of service; one way to read the gospel and the rite is that loving one another as Christ loves us is about serving one another.
And we like service, right? That’s a good thing! It’s something we can do. We can measure the work, we can observe the impact. We can know that we are making a difference in the world. I am fully supportive of service. Let’s volunteer to serve a meal at the Soup Kitchen or at Chapel on the Green. As the motto of Saint Hilda’s House says, let’s go “through the gates into the city,” serving those whom we meet. There’s nothing better for building community and working for the kingdom of God, right?
We can get our minds around that. We can see how it makes sense to wash another’s feet—literally as well as metaphorically.
But what about the flipside? What about having our own feet washed? What about being served? As I’ve asked people about having their feet washed this week, and believe me, I’ve asked a lot of folks, I have heard funny reactions such as “Oh, guess I’d better get a pedicure!” to “I’d better remember to wear my good socks!” to feigned responses of horror: “Nobody’s going to touch my feet!”
Now, when we’re talking about the play-acting that is foot washing in the liturgy, that’s fine; we can make all the jokes we want about how uncomfortable it is to have our feet washed—because it is, right? It’s just strange! Who do we let touch our feet? Maybe doctors or pedicurists—that’s pretty safe—they have chemicals and soaps and gloves and things to make the procedure sanitary and distanced—or maybe people that we really love, that we really trust. Our spouses, perhaps our parents if we’re younger. But that’s about it. Feet are a no-go zone. That’s really intimate. Really uncomfortable.
It wouldn’t have been so unusual in the near Eastern culture of Jesus’s time to have your feet washed; there was no sidewalk, no pavement, and feet got dusty. Today in some near Eastern countries Muslims wash their feet at the door of the mosque before offering prayers. And Jesus’s disciples would have expected their feet to be washed when they came in for dinner—to be washed by a servant, a professional, someone whose job it was to wash dirty feet. But this footwashing was uncomfortable for them. Peter even refuses at first Jesus’s invitation! He says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”
Part of what made it so uncomfortable for these disciples was this reversal—that it was Jesus who was washing their feet. Suddenly the footwashing wasn’t about a clinical, professional act—not like a pedicure or even a cleaning up before dinner—but their spiritual leader, their friend, the one they had come to understand as Messiah, was washing their feet. Shouldn’t they be serving him? And yet, there they were, their tired, dirty, inelegant, vulnerable, exposed feet. Held in their Lord’s hands. Washed and dried with his towel. Cleaned and refreshed.
This same Jesus that takes his disciples’ feet in his hands, tenderly washing them, is the same Jesus that we hear, in the gospel lesson from Luke, as he takes the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them with these words: “This is my body, which is given for you.” (Luke 22.19a) This is my body. Take and eat. What if we were sitting at that very table? How intimate, vulnerable, uncomfortable would those words make us feel? When we hear those words every week, they can become rote. Sure, this is my body. Got it. We understand what that means theologically, spiritually. But what if you heard that at Easter dinner: Hey Carol, pass the dinner rolls. Here, have some. This is my body! If Uncle Bob says that, you’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable, right? What is he talking about? What does this mean? What’s wrong with Bob?!
This is comparing apples and oranges, right? Jesus’s words are not the same as Uncle Bob’s carrying on at dinner. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be shocked by Jesus’s words. Surely the disciples were shocked. Just like the footwashing, this offering of his own body—in the meal that becomes the Eucharist, on the Cross, in his Resurrection—this offering of Jesus’s own body is real. It is intimate. It is vulnerable. We are vulnerable, exposed to Jesus.
We are so separated from one another in our modern lives that it’s easy to feel disconnected. Or to distrust connectivity, closeness. A few months ago I had a conversation with a man who articulated something that I think is in the back of many of our minds. He said, you know, I think I’m a pretty good person. I don’t lie or cheat or steal. I’m nice to people. But I’m worried I’m not doing enough. I mean, why would Jesus love me, particularly? What have I done to deserve that? Don’t I need to do something for God? Keep up my end of the bargain?
Our rational, skeptical selves can really be taken aback—be made uncomfortable, even—by this Jesus figure who, against all convention, stoops to wash our feet—to take them in his hands—breaking boundaries and even comfort zones—by this Jesus, who offers us his own body and blood—by this Jesus, who offers himself on the cross. This Jesus is real. He has a body, he sweats, he bleeds, he moans. He holds the disciples’ feet tenderly, washes them, dries them with a towel. He breaks bread and gives it to them. This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
Maundy Thursday is weird. It is uncomfortable. It is shocking. It is intimate, and we feel vulnerable. And that shocking intimacy is something of the point. Jesus gets close to us—to our own imperfect bodies, our own imperfect souls, and offers us his perfect body, his perfect self. And we can’t do anything to hold up our end of the bargain. We can’t deserve it. All we can do is receive his gift. All we can do is say thank you. All we can do is live, knowing that he has chosen us. That he gives himself to us. That he draws us in love to him.
Sometimes it helps me to hear things said different ways. Sometimes poetry helps me understand an idea a little better. Sometimes the poetry of the footwashing, as uncomfortable and weird as it is, helps me to understand that the Eucharist is even more intimate. That Jesus wants to serve you and me. That Jesus wants to love you and me. Lord, how can I serve you?! I want to ask. And Jesus seems to answer, There’s plenty of time for you to serve others as I have served you. But tonight, at this supper, sit back, have your feet washed, and receive my self offering. My own body and blood.
This poem from George Herbert tells it better than I can. Maybe it can help you prepare to hear Our Lord’s words, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
A poem, from George Herbert:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 5
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.' 10
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?' 15
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
Come and have your feet washed. Come to the altar and receive the gift of Christ’s presence in the Holy Communion, the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Come. Sit, and eat.
 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43581080 (accessed 3/29/18)
 George Herbert, “Love bade me welcome,” drawn from The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900, ed Arthur Quiller Couch, 1919, as published online at http://www.bartleby.com/101/286.html (accessed 4/2/15)