Lenten Lectio: Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter by Sadao Watanabe, 1963.

Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter by Sadao Watanabe, 1963.

Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, begins the three day period known variously as the Paschal Triduum, Holy Triduum, or Easter Triduum (Triduum meaning “three days” in Latin). This marks the three days of Jesus passion story leading up to, and sometimes including, Easter Sunday. Traditionally this time has been called “the still days” as church bells were silenced, organs and other church instruments were not used and weddings or other celebrations were discouraged. Each day has a specific focus on an event of the passion and Holy Thursday zeroes in on Jesus washing the disciples feet and Last Supper. Churches that have services on Thursday will often feature foot washing and the Eucharist. For today’s reflection, I want to spend some time focusing on Jesus washing his disciples feet.

Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.
John 13:3-5 (CEB)

It should be no big surprise that the Gospel of John is a bit peculiar from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Most surprisingly when we get to Jesus’ last interaction with his disciples, typically called the Last Supper, John highlights Jesus washing the disciples feet, records some encouragement and prayers Jesus shares with the disciples and then has Jesus go to an unnamed garden where he is arrested. What seems to be missing from John’s account of the Last Supper is any mention of bread and wine or Jesus body and blood being given for you. The only bread offered is to Judas as a sign of his betrayal and as a fulfillment of a scripture in Psalm 41:9.

Trust me, it’s not there. Go ahead and look…I’ll wait.

Surprising right? Let’s take this roller coaster all the way to the top and I’m going to drop you off the edge and take you for a ride, but hang on with me. For the moment, let’s take John as it is written and not put in something that’s not there. John must not mention our familiar Lord’s Supper story for a reason.  What if…?

What if the foot washing scene is John’s perspective on the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist as we are familiar with it in the other gospels? What if washing the disciples’ feet is an example of Jesus giving his life, body and blood, for the disciples? Before we get into how they might be similar, let’s notice that the foot washing also comes with a command. After washing their feet, Jesus gives the following command to the disciples, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do” (John 13:14-15) which could be John’s version of “Do this in  remembrance of me.”  For John, it seems, foot washing is a sort of sacrament. Indeed, water has played very important role in John’s Gospel.

  • Jesus turns water to wine – John 2
  • Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and spirit – John 3
  • Jesus offers the woman at the well “living water” – John 4
  • Jesus walks on water – John 6
  • Jesus says, “All who are thirsty should come to me” – John 7
  • Jesus washes the disciples feet – John 13
  • Blood and water flow from Jesus pierced side – John 19

How then is foot washing similar to the Eucharist?  In the Lord’s supper, Jesus gives his body and blood symbolized in the bread and wine to his disciples to share with one another. In a way, Jesus has served the disciples by giving up his life. The same is true of Jesus washing the disciples feet in John. In the story, Jesus removes his outer robe and wraps a linen cloth around himself. The strong symbol here is that Jesus has “taken off” whatever high status he had before and “puts on” the status of servant. He then offers himself as a servant to his disciples by washing their feet. Peter famously rejects the service, thinking that Jesus should not stoop to such levels. However, none of the other disciples chose to wash feet either so in a sense…

Jesus is doing what no one else could do, or was willing to do.

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
John 13:8 (CEB)

For John, the washing of the disciples feet was an essential act in demonstrating why Jesus had come and who he was. In the Eucharist stories of the other Gospels Jesus demonstrates through the symbol of the meal what his purpose is. In John, Jesus demonstrated his power and authority through many signs, miracles and teachings. But when, “his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father,” (John 13:1) rather than a flashy display of his power, he kneels down, takes off his robe and takes on the image of a servant (Philippians 2:7) to wash the dirty feet of his well-meaning but obstinate disciples.

I think we’ve lost a bit of the “do this in remembrance of me” when it comes to foot washing. We do live in a different time and culture where the washing of feet is not an essential act of hospitality or service. Many churches do maintain foot washing services, especially on Maundy Thursday. However, the example that Jesus sets in this story is essential to what it means to be a Christian and should define our actions and worship just as much as the Eucharist does.

Love demonstrated through hospitality and service towards others are essential sacraments to the Church. The Eucharist meal (originally known as Love Feasts) were also examples of this. These were giant potlucks where status, gender and nationality were not to be dividing factors. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:17-22) and James (James 2:1-13) takes great pains to correct their churches where this had not been demonstrated. We are truly being the Church when we remove from ourselves any sense of entitlement or judgment and wrap ourselves in humility and grace in service to those around us. While foot washing may not be an essential part of your Christian life and worship experience, love and service in humility and grace should always be. The Eucharist and foot washing are not just examples and symbols, but they are calls to action to demonstrate the grace and humility that Jesus showed and commanded us to share. I pray that as we enter this most important time of the Church calendar that we would find opportunities to “wash the feet” of those around us in whatever way that looks like for you and your community.

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