Maundy Thursday is a transitional night, marking an end and a beginning. In each, we remember and celebrate the amazing, loving action of Jesus.
Tonight we mark the end of Lent. We put away the pottery communionware and bring out the lovely silver as we remember Jesus’ institution of the Holy Eucharist, his the promise to us that he is really with us in the breaking of bread. We remember the blessing of holy sustenance, Jesus’ gift to his friends. Tonight we also mark the beginning of a new community. As we begin the sacred Triduum, the three holiest days of our year, a remembrance of Jesus’ three day journey into death and new life, we re-enact Jesus’ service of washing his friends’ feet. We remember his final humble and loving action before he was betrayed.
All the things we remember change who we are and what we shall become. In fact, the very experience of the sacrament we celebrate – the ritual that comingles physical signs with spiritual meaning – makes real the mysterious salvation of which we speak. Human salvation flows out from the Love at the center of the universe.
The gospel story we have heard offers us a slightly different perspective from the synoptic gospels on what Jesus did that evening. This does not mean that one gospel is “true” and others are not. The nature of perspective means that every person tells a unique story. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of the supper of the Lord, recalling the origins of Holy Communion in a dinner gathering, without including the footwashing. Jesus reinterprets the Passover seder in the context of his own death and the kingdom that is to come. The salvation of God is given a more universal context.
The Gospel of John focuses on footwashing. John talks about a gathering, but not about a last supper. For John, Jesus’ assuming the role of the servant is more important. This reveals the depth of his love. This is the kenosis to which Paul refers in Philippians. Washing feet was the work of a servant. Jesus begins his final teaching by serving. In the lengthy discourse that follows (three chapters of final words of wisdom), Jesus tells his friends about his death and what it means. He tells them that they must love one another. By his action, he reveals the core of their identity. If the Son of God can wash feet, so can his followers. There is no shame. There is only Love. You can be sure that his friends never had their feet washed again without remembering the night that Jesus washed everyone’s feet (including Judas) and how that changed their understanding of leadership.
John can include the story of footwashing and omit the details of the supper because the other story was simply so well known. Paul knew the story of the supper and so did the authors of Mt, Mk, and Lk. John is the last of the canonical gospels to be written. Everyone who heard or read John’s gospel would have known about the supper of the Lord. John expands the theology of who the Christ is, because John wants to support the reader’s faith.
What the gospels have in common is that after his action – either blessing bread and wine or washing feet – Jesus says to his followers Do this. Do as I have done. In the scripture, Jesus is an surprisingly non-directive Messiah. He does not say this sort of thing often. We need to pay attention.
When Jesus says Do this, with respect to washing feet, he is echoing the words he spoke at the supper in the other gospels. When Jesus says Do this in the GJohn, footwashing moves into a eucharistic context. When Jesus asks Do you know what I have done to you? he is asking his friends to recognize something about how they must be with one another as a community. He establishes the necessary role of humble service in the life of anyone who intends to follow him. It is a bit surprising that the washing of feet is not a sacrament, as we have sacramentalized every other dominical command. Perhaps we have chosen to leave the nature of humble service undefined, so it would not be understood so rigidly that there is no room for expansion.
Like Peter, we are pretty squeamish about getting our feet washed. Inviting participants forward generates a feeble response. I know people who will not participate if they haven’t had a recent pedicure. Our feet do a lot of hard work, and they are icky at the end of the day. And that is the point. Jesus’ willingness to wash feet is a sign of deep love: there is nothing about us that is too gross for our Lord. Jesus loves us, all of us, including the ick. We need to get over our shame and squeamishness – and then go out and share that understanding with the world.
When we come to the supper of the Lord – to the holy banquet we call the Eucharist – we are doing as Jesus commanded. We do this in memory of him, every week. If we take and eat, and go back out into the world without committing ourselves to serve others in his name, we are missing something. We take and eat the sacrament so we can BE the living sacrament in the world that needs Christ so desperately. With humility. With a generous spirit. With love. Let us remember that – and go and do likewise.