Today is Maundy Thursday – a strange name for a strange day. After the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment, Maundy Thursday is the day Christians remember the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested, condemned to death and crucified. And it’s the meal at which he gave them what became known as the new commandment – to love one another he said – as I have loved you.
It sounds simple enough – to love one another – but it’s proved impossibly challenging not only for individual Christians but for the church over two millennia even to begin to live this out.
Jesus quoted in his own teaching the ethic that appears in many faiths known as the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Today is the day when that teaching is changed - from do to others as you would have them do to you – to Do as I have done to you. And he said this just as he put a towel around his waist, knelt down and washed the feet of his friends. Do as I have done to you. His own feet had been washed earlier by an unnamed woman only described as a “sinner from the city”.
She washed his feet; he washed theirs; and told them that was how they were to live.
Having your feet washed by someone else is not always a comfortable experience. Most of us wouldn’t unless we were ill. And many people don’t like it; it reveals our own embarrassment about the state of our feet, we can feel ashamed or anxious. Tonight, with others, I will wash the feet of people in our congregation and it is an immensely moving thing to do: feet that have been standing for hours at work; feet on the step of a wheelchair; young feet used to having mud between their toes, old feet with curious shapes and wrinkled skin. The intimacy of washing feet is culturally alien to us in a way that it wasn’t in Jesus’s day – but the symbolism is just as confronting. Because this action is radically undermining of a competitive, adversarial life in which winning is more important than anything else.
This strange day is the day Jesus chooses to lose the battle he’s in with the political and religious authorities of his day. Today begins the inexorable path towards his crucifixion. He chooses to lose: to kneel, to submit, to love. And to tell his friends it’s not as complicated as they think. To live this love meant then what it means now: looking for the poorest people in your community and finding ways to wash their feet.
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