The wonder of Maundy Thursday

The wonder of Maundy Thursday is found in John’s account of that evening (John 13.3-4):

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towed around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

Jesus, although conscious of being the Son of God, in a way which must have stunned his disciples, humbled himself as he washed his disciples’ feet. This task of washing feet was regarded as particularly menial. In Jewish households it was a task from which Jewish slaves were exempt and instead was normally done by Gentile slaves – Jewish slaves were exempted from washing feet. However, Jewish wives and children, who came even lower on the social pecking order, were sometimes expected to share in this necessary task. At a time when there was no street paving, feet could get very dirty. The roads were often inches deep in dust in dry weather, and then turned to liquid mud in wet weather.

As many commentators note, the action of Jesus taking off his coat, rolling up his sleeves as it were, and washing his disciples’ feet, was full of prophetic symbolism: for as the underlying Greek makes clear the verb (tithemi) used for Jesus ‘taking off’ or ‘lying down’ his outer robe is the same verb used of the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10.17,18).

The disciples’ must have felt embarrassed by Jesus’ action. Yet not one of them sprang up to take over the task of foot washing from their Lord. Perhaps not surprisingly Jesus rebukes them (John 13.14,15):

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed our feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do this as I have done to you.

As a result of these words of Jesus the washing of feet became a regular practice of the early church before bread and wine was served. In the great liturgical churches foot washing continues to be practiced, but normally just on Maundy Thursday. In that regard I noted that last Maundy Thursday Pope Francis went to a youth prison on the outskirts of Rome to wash the feet of twelve inmates.

As no doubt at all other English cathedrals, at Chelmsford Cathedral the Maundy Thursday service always includes the washing of feet. Indeed, I have had my feet washed on two occasion within the context of a Maundy Thursday service in the cathedral. I found it a moving experience as the Dean of the Cathedral knelt down before me to wash and then wipe my feet – or more accurately to wash and then wipe my right foot (one foot was deemed sufficient for the symbolism!).

The question arises, beyond the liturgy for Maundy Thursday, what relevance does washing of feet have today? Our streets are paved and not full of dirt as they were in first-century Palestine. Furthermore, if we know it is going to pour with rain, we tend to ensure that we are properly shod. The answer to the question is found in Luke’s account of the Last Supper was one of those occasions.  “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (22.24). Even at this late stage in Jesus’ ministry the disciples were still blinded by visions of thrones and crowns.

The washing of his disciples’ feet by Jesus reminds us that Jesus by washing feet made abundantly clear that service is the true mark of leadership within God’s church.  For Jesus went on to speak further about the necessity of servant leadership (Luke 22.25-27)

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Do note that Jesus was not saying that before one could become a leader one had to prove oneself through faithful service. Rather faithful service was for Jesus the place of true greatness. In the words of T.W. Manson, a former great NT scholar at Manchester: “In the Kingdom of God service is not a stepping-stone to nobility:  it is nobility, the only kind of nobility that is recognized”.

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