When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 12-15 NIV)
The Church has a tradition called the “Paschal Triduum” which encompasses and remembers the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. The church I grew up in only did Good Friday and Easter, and I wasn’t really introduced to Maundy Thursday until I became a cantor for the large Catholic parish here in Ogden. Since then I’ve loved the Triduum and what it brings to mind.
Specifically the Triduum recalls what I like to call the Three Paradoxes of Holy Week. During the course of Thursday through Sunday, three major events happen that illustrate the great Paradox of Christianity and the life of Christ. Over the next few days I’ll post on each of the three.
Maundy Thursday is the remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples and the instructions that he gave them that night, largely recorded in the section of the Gospel of John called “The Farewell Discourse.” The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum which is where we also get our word “mandate.”
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus ate one last meal with his disciples, instituting the most important rite in Christianity: The Eucharist or Holy Communion. However, before supper, Jesus did something very strange, which brings us to our first paradox.
First century diners didn’t generally sit at a table with chairs. They would recline head to foot around a table, which meant your head was probably next to somebody’s feet. That’s kind of gross. People walked about barefoot or in sandals, leaving their feet exposed to the dirt and stones of the road, not to mention the feces of various animals. Can you imagine the dirty state of feet? Smell that through dinner? No thanks. So generally it was customary for the host of a meal to provide a servant to wash the feet of the guests at the meal.
The disciples would have seen the towel and the wash basin next to the door as they entered the upper room. There were no servants about, and none of the disciples volunteered to do the job. As Adam Hamilton suggests, they had hung around with Jesus for a long time, and they didn’t want to get stuck doing the foot washing, so they probably all headed quickly to their seats. Then something different happened.
Jesus enters the room, takes off his clothes, wraps a towel around his waist, fills the basin and begins to wash the feet of these men. This included the feet of Peter, his best friend who would deny him three times before the night was over, and the feet of Judas, the man who betray him to his death in the following hours. Can you imagine how the disciples felt?
What did these men believe about Jesus? They believed that he was the Son of the Living God, the great, promised King who would deliver their people. John writes in his Gospel that Christ was with God in the beginning, so he was there when the heavens and earth were formed. God in human flesh, he created the very stars of night, the sun that warms the day, and the water that gives life to all beings. He was the King of the Universe.
And there he was, washing their feet like an ordinary servant.
Surely that made them uncomfortable. In fact Peter, ever the reactionary, voices his discomfort and tells Jesus that he will never wash his feet. Jesus then of course tells him that he will have no place with him unless he lets him wash his feet, to which Peter replies “Then not just my feet, but my hands and head as well,” (John 13:9). Peter gets the paradox, but he doesn’t get the point.
After he finished washing the feet. Christ puts his clothes back on gets set to begin the Passover dinner. But first, he explains the paradox: “Do you know what I have done for you? If I, your Lord, you know, God, washed your feet, you should wash each others feet. This is the example that I give you.”
The paradox of Maundy Thursday is this: The King of the Universe, God in human flesh, He who formed all life, the Beginning and the End of all things, took off his clothes and assumed the role of servant, doing one of the dirtiest jobs in the world.
Where does that leave us? How does that make you feel? Christ’s example and his mandate to serve each other wasn’t just meant for the 12 men in that room, it was meant for each and every one of us.
Yet, we’re horrible at it, especially in our modern, material society where everything is about ME ME ME. Christians aren’t exempt from it either. Some of the most unyielding, power hungry people that I have ever known called themselves Christians, and wouldn’t be caught dead serving anyone in any way.
Do we see the disconnect between the way we live and the example given to us by Christ? Many of us simply can’t fathom giving up anymore of our hard earned money in taxes so that everyone in this country, the richest in the world I remind you, can have access to basic healthcare regardless of their ability to pay. Poor people are told to “get off your butt and get a job,” even though many of them are already working multiple jobs. Homeless people are refused aid because we automatically assume they’re going to go buy alcohol or drugs. Mental illness is given lip service every time somebody goes on a killing spree, but our society has yet to commit to giving people with these debilitating conditions the help they need. We don’t seek to give of what we receive, we view it as ours and not God’s. In short we take what we can and give nothing, or very little, back.
Christ gives us the opposite example. He laid aside all his power to come to us, to live with us, to save us, and yes, to serve us. If the King of the Universe can lay aside not only his power, but the very clothes on his back to serve people who don’t deserve it, what’s our excuse? We are truly his servants and the servant is never greater than the Master (John 13:16).
So this evening or this weekend, take some time to think about your attitude, and try to think of ways you can follow Christ’s example of humble service, even if you don’t think people deserve to be served. You and I are not greater than the Master, the King who became a servant.