What can we learn from Maundy Thursday?

There’s so much that happens in this service! To me, it feels like at least 3 services all smooshed into one – each maybe justifying its own sermon. So, settle down, because it’s going to be a long night. 

I’m joking. Sort of. 

But if Lent is one long season of preparation for Easter, Holy Week is that preparation intensified,  and Maundy Thursday is the setting-up of all that will happen over the Triduum, the 3 days, of Jesus’ passion. The readings that are set today draw on themes of Passover, of God’s saving the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt; on the institution of communion; the importance of serving each other through the symbolism of feet washing; and the watch in Gethsemane, as we try to do what Jesus’ disciples could not – to wait, and watch, and pray. By contrast, the pace of Good Friday seems relaxed in comparison. 

But we’re not quite there yet; so where shall we go tonight? 

Let’s talk about foot washing. We’re not doing it tonight, for various reasons. It’s awkward and uncomfortable; no one wants to show off their feet; it’s complicated getting towels and water and volunteers; everyone who doesn’t get their feet washed just sits and watches, which possibly makes it more awkward; and for some of us it’s quite physically hard to get our shoes and socks off, or to kneel down, in the first place. And there may be a few, or maybe even many of you, who are breathing a sigh of relief at this. 

And yet, I wonder whether we are missing out on something here. Whether we’re being a little bit like Peter – ‘you will never wash my feet!’ – because it’s too undignified for the building, the music, the liturgy, to have water splashing around and our bare feet out on a solemn day like today. And those of us who allow it – do we do it a little bit like Peter too – allowing it because Jesus is in charge, and hoping (just a little bit) that it might get us some brownie points in heaven, a taste of the Kingdom of God. 

I wonder whether we’ve forgotten that Jesus washed his disciples feet because there would have been a whiff of the road, the sweat, the dirt that they’d walked through that day. And yes, it’s become an object lesson in what Christian leadership and service looks like – about stacking the chairs, or washing the dishes, doing the dirty or boring or demeaning jobs that no one really wants to do but that need doing in order to enable life to continue – that if that is not below Jesus’ dignity, then how on earth can we say that it is beneath our own? 

But I want to draw us away from the valourising of service, just for tonight, and focus instead on the shame that we can sometimes feel about being the one whose feet are washed; the one who is cared for. 

We live in a pretty individualistic society, where the assumption is that we need to be able to look after ourselves, or our own family; that to have needs that we are unable to meet means that we are somehow lacking, when actually it makes us so very, very human. But the cultural assumption is that we should seek to be independent as far as possible, and that needing help is a failing on our part. 

When my little sister was a toddler, she had a catch-phrase, which came out on regular occasions whenever someone tried to help her with something. She wanted to do it “by my own!” You know the phase, don’t you – when you’re just trying to get the toddler dressed, or out the house, or toys packed away, or tea eaten, but you are no longer allowed or wanted to help, and instead you have to watch as half the food goes on the floor, or the table, or the face, or in the hair, and other such moments that would be very sweet – were you not just trying to get something done. 

I bet the disciples knew that their feet smelled a bit, but thought that they’d all known each other for long enough that they’d all politely ignore the whiff of the road – they’d not had time to wash, and they were all in the same boat. And then, when Jesus gets up to wash them, I’d’ve thought they’d all feel a little bit got-at, a little defensive: ‘alright, so my feet smell, but so do yours, Jesus, and you didn’t give us time to wash them before we ate!’

I can understand Peter’s refusal; and his allowing, too. I am not hugely good at recognising my need for care from people. But then, if I’m told I must, I go along with it. Once when I lived in Exeter I fell off my bike. Got a wonderful graze on my knee, but thought it’d all be fine. A week later it started oozing pus, and my work colleagues sent me to the walk-in centre, where I was looked after by some very kind nurses. And of course, I was there apologizing for taking up their time, and the fact that it was a bit gross, and their response, of course, was that this was their job. I still have the scar; but I have a knee that works, and I was hugely grateful for their care. 

Now, maybe my dislike of accepting care is just me; maybe you’re all very good at acknowledging your needs and accepting care from each other. I hope that’s the case; but I suspect maybe not. It takes trust to allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone. And yet, in refusing to acknowledge our need, we don’t allow people to meet it; we do not allow them to live out their gifts and skills that might make them feel fulfilled and myself cared for. And sometimes it’s easier to trust and be vulnerable with those who are professionals – doctors, nurses, counsellors, carers – than it is with each other.

To what extent does Jesus feel like a ‘professional’ in this sense, to us – the one who we can expect to receive care from, can be vulnerable with, can allow to wash our feet when we wouldn’t dare offer them to each other? But, if we are all called to be like Jesus, to wash each others’ feet, we each need to offer our metaphorical feet to each other. The things about our lives that are a bit pongy, a bit dirty, or messy, that don’t match up to the capable face that we like to present to the world. 

Foot washing in today’s service doesn’t fulfil our real needs; it’s become a symbol – a powerful one still, perhaps, but maybe one that has become divorced from the message that it was meant to get across. I wonder what those needs are, for us all? Maybe that’s something to ponder in the Watch this evening, or to bring to the table when we receive communion, or reach out in courage to share with those around us. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the needs that we have, as individuals and a community, and be brave enough to share those needs and accept the care that each other would offer. To trust that the whiff of our feet, or the pus of our grazed knee, will be met with compassion and care, rather than disgust; that we will remember the love that Jesus showed his disciples then and shows to us still. Amen. 

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