I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and I do not presently attend a church that observes a lot of ceremony. When I’ve had opportunity to visit in churches different from mine, I’ve often been moved by the meaning expressed in more formal worship. Sometimes as we approach church holidays, I feel . . . impoverished, because I don’t easily remember the meanings of the services celebrated in those “other” churches. This morning when I remembered the day is Maundy Thursday, I also remembered that I’d forgotten what maundy means. I needn’t linger there, though. As a friend of my husband likes to say, “That’s what Google is for.” So I googled it.
Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, from which we get our English word, mandate. As it pertains to today, the Thursday before Easter, maundy points back to the Latin translation of Jesus’ words at his last meal with his disciples: Mandatum novum do vobis – “A new commandment I give to you” (John 13:34a). This is pretty important, then. This meal they were sharing, the Passover supper, was the last Jesus would eat before undergoing His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. These were some of the last words He would say to anyone before laying down His life for everyone. It seems fitting, even urgent, that we should pay attention, even now, to these words.
I guess I got a little mixed up, though, because it doesn’t make sense to me that the celebration of this mandate re-enacts what Jesus did before saying He was giving the disciples a new commandment, instead of focusing on what He said next. He had shocked His friends by washing their feet after supper that evening; this was servant’s work, not to be done by the master of the feast or the teacher of men. Au contraire, Jesus countered – they must all be willing to be servants in order to follow Him. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). So for centuries, on this day, some Christians have participated in ceremonial foot-washing, following the example of our humble servant King.
But what was the mandate, the commandment He gave, the mandatum that gives this Thursday its name in church tradition? “A new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). That’s where I had to pause.
I think we’re supposed to do more than foot washing.
What would happen if, instead of washing one another’s feet in a basin at church, we went out together, carrying water and a towel, and washed the feet of the homeless people sleeping just around the corner from our safe sanctuary?
What would happen if, instead of washing the feet of those we know well, we offered to sit and listen to those we don’t know, whose clothes might need washing, whose hair might need washing, but whose spirits could be washed and revived by our simple act of paying attention?
What would happen if, instead of washing feet in public, we offered when no one was watching to wash the hands of a child too small to reach the water? of a sick person too weak to walk to the water? of a crippled person unable to get to the water?
What if we loved one another . . . as He loved us? He repeated the new mandate later the same evening, according to John: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). He went further this second time, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The next day He laid down his life for his friends, his enemies, and all who would eventually call on His name (Romans 10:13).
Am I laying down my life for my friends? Am I loving as He loved? Or am I seeking a symbolic connection to something easy to do, washing feet because Jesus did, right, so it must be important? Am I revering the ritual rather than honoring the Word, Who was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14)?
Lord, lead us not into the temptation to do things for the wrong reasons, and deliver us from the evil of judging one another’s practices of faith. Let us not seek religious ritual alone, even when it is inspired by the humble desire to understand and please You. Neither let us cast out all ceremony, for in such acts our spirits may find meaning that cannot be said in words. Remind us of Your truth, and help us to be mindful of doing as You say, and also as You do.