Foot washing. Embarrassing, unusual and, for most of the faithful, blessedly optional.” A fact for which my husband Gary is eternally grateful. He is not fond of Maundy Thursday. It’s different. It’s kind of weird and, perhaps worst of all, it’s just so casual. Maundy Thursday is in many ways an introvert’s nightmare.
There are, of course, different ways to approach it. The Episcopal Church I attended as a child generally had the entire service in the sanctuary. When it was your turn to go and get your feet washed, you had to take off your shoes and socks and put your feet on the icy marble of the floor in order to receive a cursory splash, pat, and rub from a cold-handed priest. In recent years, however, Episcopal Churches have developed versions of the service that include sharing an authentic Jewish Seder Passover meal and/or having parishioners wash one another’s feet. (I’m pretty sure the extroverts were involved in the planning of that one). But no matter how you do it, there’s no way around the fact that Maundy Thursday is a much more intimate experience than your average Sunday morning worship service. And that makes some people uncomfortable.
It certainly makes a lot of priests – who are mostly introverts themselves – pretty uncomfortable – and I don’t think it’s because most of them are unwilling to practice humility. After all, our example is the son of God, who strips down, and kneels at the feet of the pack of homeless, rebellious social outcasts that he hangs around with to wash their dirty feet. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect priests to set the example by washing the feet of all who ask, kneeling before any and all, humbling themselves in imitation of Christ. After all, if Jesus was willing to humble himself in this way, surely we must be too!
Except there are some problems with that interpretation. First of all, most Christian churches have progressed in their understanding of “ministry” enough to know that priests are no better, no more dignified, and no more worthy of being held in high esteem than any other child of God. I’m sure that for many people in the hierarchical church of my youth, it was probably a kick to have your bossy, snooty, and holier-than-thou rector down on his knees coping with your athlete’s foot, but if we learned anything about the Christian church in the 20th century, it’s that a once-yearly ritual of having your priest kneel on the floor does not demonstrate his or her humility. A priest is not made humble by being forced to his or her knees as part of an annual liturgical “show.” A priest is made humble by recognizing the blessing that has been afforded her by being given the opportunity to lead a community of committed, faithful, Christians. In other words, you teach me humility every day.
I am humbled by the people who prepared the dinner we are eating. I am humbled by those who got out the dish pans and towels. I am humbled by those who will stand in the dark trying not to bang into things as we strip the altar. I am humbled by those who prepared tonight’s bulletin and who are helping with the music. I am humbled by this church family – a family that imitates Christ to the best of their ability all the time, not just once a year. What teaches us humility is appreciating one another’s gifts. And I think that’s what Maundy Thursday is about – not humiliating ourselves before God – not even about sharing the Eucharist together. You will notice that John’s gospel story about the Last Supper does not contain the mandate – the Maundy – to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus. Instead, it contains another even more important command: to love one another. By this – not by whether you take communion, not by whether you attend church -but by loving one another everyone will know that you are Christian.
Jesus practiced what he preached. Knowing that he would soon be suffering from betrayal, denial, unspeakable pain and eventual death, Jesus did what any one of us would do: he spent time with those he loved, eating, drinking, resting, and talking with his friends – his family. The example he set for us may have been one of humility, but it was also one of love, of the willingness to do anything you can to comfort and care for those you love – and those you don’t. Because, lest we forget, the gospel writer tells us that Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him, was also present at that dinner. Judas was part of the family.
There is hatred in our world. There is division. It is our job to show and sow love. It will probably involve humbling ourselves to do it. But it will definitely involve making ourselves vulnerable – both by caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for, to have our feet washed. Yes, it is kind of strange and pretty uncomfortable, but isn’t that what it means to be family? Isn’t that what it means to love?
William F. Brosend, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 272.