Lots of different professions or communities develop their own language. My brother and sister were in the Navy, as well as their spouses, and we would at times have to interrupt them to explain what a word or an anagram meant. But it’s not just them. Hospitals, courts, insurance offices, grocery stores – just about every niche of our society has its own language.
Our Episcopal Church has our language. You have come in through the narthex into the nave. I’m in the nave now but, will retreat to the chancel at the appropriate time and then to the sanctuary. You’re wearing clothes. I am too, but also an alb, cincture and stole. Soon cometh the chasuble! I grew up in this church and I still run into words I don’t know or understand.
One of those was Maundy or Holy Thursday. For much of my life I just sort of assumed that since Maundy and Holy were interchangeable titles for this day in Holy Week that Maundy must be some old English word for Holy. It isn’t.
Do you know what Maundy means? It means commandment. It has the same root as mandate – we could call this Mandate Thursday.
What is the mandate? There are two commands in the Gospel text. The first one is the pedilavium. That’s a Latin term that means foot-washing. Some of us have done it. But where it is done, it presents a problem. Wherever I have done it, the people who do it tend to do so reluctantly. But they still heed the Lord’s command. Others are not quite able to get there.
I do not wish to make light of it – but you hear the Lord’s command. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” The hesitations around foot-washing are part of its value as a sacrament. The washing of feet is a sign pointing to the larger issue which he says explicitly in the other command: Love one another.
Jesus says it is a new command, though he also cited it specifically as a summary of all the law pertaining to human behavior toward each other. Coming from his own lips, hailing it as new, underscores and underlines the imperative nature of it.
This isn’t a rule, guideline, suggestion or encouragement. It is a command. From Jesus. It is not couched in obscure liturgical terms like pedilavium.
This command challenges our understanding of very nature of love. Everyone thinks they know what love is, but do we? John tells us that, “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end.” How does he show that love? Knowing he is about to die and the strain that will put on them, he gives them a great deal of instruction and he prayer to his Father for them. But love requires more than words, it requires action. First, he washes their feet.
In washing their feet, he demonstrates his love for them. He also demonstrates his way of leadership. He is their servant. Many of us see the clear leadership message in that. It is a staple of leadership training, even in the military. If you want your team to thrive and achieve, serve them so that they are empowered and motivated.
And where I’ve participated in foot washing, and I’ve done it almost every year of my adult life, most people don’t actually mind washing someone else’s feet. They get that servant leadership idea and they are ready to serve others.
The hesitation tends to come at having our own feet washed. Most people don’t like their feet to be washed. True, some of them may be self-conscious about their feet. I’ve known people who get a pedicure just to prepare for Maundy Thursday. But there’s a deeper reason.
We often struggle to receive ministry, especially people who are gifted at providing pastoral care. The person who does a stellar job at providing meals for someone who is ill or just suffered a death in the family is often prone to deflect receiving meals from others. We can build facades and walls or avoid contact whether out of pride for our independence or as a defense mechanism. It’s too intimate. It may be a very sore place or an embarrassing place. I don’t want my feet washed, thank you.
But that’s wrong. Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” It’s clear. It is his commandment. There is no dodging or dismissing it. I believe it’s there to ensure that our faith is not rooted in pride for all the giving and selfless work he calls us to do. We have to receive him. We have to receive his love through each other.
I believe in Jesus. I believe in his Law of Love and the ways he demonstrated it that night and especially on his way to the cross. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
But for tonight, think about the ways Christ calls us to love each other and the ways he demonstrated it in the simple act of washing feet. Remember: Wash and be washed in love.