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Topics: Spirituality | Theology

Maundy Thursday’s foot-washing is more than a re-enactment

The accompanying commandment to love and to serve is for all people, at all times

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This piece is the fifth in a series of reflections about Lent and Holy Week.

Holy Thursday, known by many Christians as Maundy Thursday, is one of the most solemn days of a very solemn week. The word Maundy is derived from the Latin word mandatum. It refers to Jesus’ commandment to the disciples to love and to serve, given when he was washing their feet in the Upper Room before the Last Supper. 

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” (John 13: 14-15). 

Some churches hold a ritual of foot washing on Maundy Thursday to commemorate this part of the Passion story. Some churches also conclude their Maundy Thursday services by stripping the altar bare, covering the cross in black cloth, and darkening the church before leaving the sanctuary in silence. As Jesus’ life was stripped from him, so the altar is stripped to symbolize his coming suffering and death, and the betrayal of his disciples who—in various ways within the space of twenty-four hours—did not live up to the commandment they had just been given.

More on Broadview: How I grapple with sacrifice during Lent and COVID-19

It is strange, and strangely fitting, to reflect on these Maundy Thursday rituals during the time of COVID-19. Instead of washing someone else’s feet as a gesture of love and service, we are commanded to wash our own hands. Although the altar may not be stripped or crosses covered, church buildings are all empty, closed, and in silence and darkness for the foreseeable future. And for those on the front lines and in vulnerable populations, the threat of suffering and death is very real. 

In many United Church communities of faith, this is a time of disorientation and loss when the special times of gathering for worship during Holy Week and Easter are not possible. We have to adjust and adapt, finding other ways to come together at a distance, celebrating the blessings of our faith apart, yet not alone. 

In the midst of this discomfort—and perhaps because of it—we are invited: 

  • to experience the events of Holy Week in a closer way than ever before. 
  • to see the foot washing and altar stripping of Maundy Thursday as not just ritual re-enactments of what happened then but reminders of what matters most now
  • to love and to serve—like our first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis—even at the risk of our own lives. 
  • to be mindful of all the things that tempt us into silence, selling out or denial. 
  • to remember that the journey of faith is, always, a journey of surrender, of looking death in the face and moving forward anyway. 

Let us continue to wash our hands. And let us remember that although the church buildings may be locked and dark for the time being, the Maundy Thursday commandment to love and to serve is everywhere, for all people, at all times.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Jane Dawson is the minister supporting communities of faith, clusters and networks, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council of The United Church of Canada

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  • says:

    Two theological moments at the supper. The first is Jesus offering humanity a new deal for the forgiveness of sin in his body and blood. And secondly the demonstration of service through the foot washing. He taught us to serve each other and than he personally demonstrated God's compassion at the cross. Please don't bifurcate the gospel we received at Christ's table.