Maundy Thursday is upon us, the day on which the church remembers the washing of the disciples’ feet and the instituting of the eucharist or covenant meal. While foot washing only pops up during this time of year, at weddings, church events, and other impromptu gatherings, the covenant meal has survived in some form throughout church history and in every expression of Christianity. Before reflecting upon the importance of these events and their significance for today, it’s worth reading through John’s narrative of the event.
Before the festival of Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end. They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from the table, removed his outer garments, and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’
Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’
‘Never!’ said Peter, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’
Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’
Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’
Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are.’ When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand,’ he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, so I am. If I then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’
Could I stomach washing the feet or a man who is about to betray me to a painful death? Could I wash the feet of a group of friends who will all flee from my side in my darkest hour? Could I wash the feet of a friend who will soon deny me and even curse me? Jesus had it rough.
It’s curious that Jesus would take the time to wash his disciples’ feet right before his crucifixion. You would think that the cross is his ultimate act of service to us. But perhaps the largness of the cross would not quite click with them. Perhaps they needed to have an every day act performed in order to convey the humility and servanthood of Jesus. While his covenant meal and his cross would remain with them forever, it was this foot washing that stood out as an immediate clue to the mind of Christ and his mission on earth. If Jesus only did the extraordinary, perhaps we would miss out on what it means to imitate him in every day life. Surely we need his extraordinary acts, but they are somehow more significant when we see that he also performed simple, every day acts of service for his friends and enemies.