If I had to pick just two services for a stranger to the Christian tradition to attend to get a broad picture of what we are about, I would choose an Easter Baptism service and Maundy Thursday (although I would probably explain to them beforehand that we aren’t all clean freaks and that we don’t go around washing everybody each week). But Baptism and this service are at the heart of and embody all the other things we do as a Christian community – all year long. Tonight we remember the Last Supper, the washing of the disciple’s feet, and the giving of a the new commandment – or
in Latin “mandatum” from which we get “Maundy.”
In the service this evening, we hear the Passover story and we remember the protection and liberation of God’s people. And we hear about blood. Blood before this story in the waters turned red, blood of the lamb, blood of all the innocent firstborn. Remember, God, says. Do these things and remember. Tonight we bear the heavy weight of remembrance of both God’s power to protect and horror over what happened to the others in this story.
We remember the Passover on Maundy Thursday, perhaps as Jesus may have done at supper with his disciples the night before he died. On that night, when Jesus “knew his hour had come” he was eating and drinking with his closest friends. But soon there would be no safe haven for God’s firstborn. Soon one of those friends would betray him, and one would deny him. And all but one would hole up in that room throughout the next few days terrified that they might be next to die.
Someone asked on Facebook yesterday in regards to this night – what would you do if you knew you had 24 hours to live? I’d want to be with the ones I love –I’d want to be with the people I love, doing the things I love, and letting the people I love know how deeply I care. And that night Jesus did that – that holy night they were friends and disciples, healers and sinners, eating and drinking together with their Lord. Having loved them all, he loved them to the end.
And then Jesus does something I’m sure shocked them all. He gets up, takes off his robe and sets about washing the feet of his disciples. Footwashing was a necessary practice in Jesus’ time since the roads were dirt and shared by humans and animals. Just think of what it would be like to be sitting on low cushions around a common table together if nobody had washed their feet…yuck. But feet were usually washed by the lowliest member of the household. So Simon Peter at first refuses to let his Lord wash his feet. Jesus answers him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter goes all in then and says “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus makes it clear to him that his is a very practical act of service – it is about cleaning what needs to be clean and honoring the person in front of you. And in his actions we find a model for humble service and care of others, of hospitality and mutuality and respect. His words and actions are a lesson for his followers about Christian community – how we share power, how we take care of others, how we show love, and how we forgive.
I’ve wondered on and off why footwashing isn’t considered a sacrament. Baptism and Eucharist are the church’s two primary sacraments because they were instituted by Christ. Why not footwashing? “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another”s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Sounds an awful lot like Christ’s instructions of “Do this in remembrance of me” and “Go and make disciples and baptize them…”
Footwashing on Maundy Thursday has always felt sacramental to me, even though I get the same uncomfortable feelings online casino’s that we all get about it sometimes. All of our feet are weird, embarrassing, disgusting, right? And having someone else wash them is just so… intimate. Most of us go out of our way to avoid situations where we are expected to have such intimate encounters that push on our comfortable boundaries. But here we sit, with a story and in a Christian community that challenges us to do that very thing.
A friend of my mom’s posted a beautiful poem wishing that we washed hands instead of feet on Maundy Thursday[i]. After all, our hands have peeled potatoes, scrubbed floors, changed diapers, and have wiped away our tears and the tears of others. Our hands have dug in the garden and tenderly caressed the people we love. My hands have held my husband’s, and my children’s, and they held my mothers as she was dying. Wash my hands, she begs in the poem, and not my feet. So why does it have to be our feet, Lord? My feet are my own stinky, yucky mess Lord, and I”d very much like to keep that to myself, thank you. They have literally borne the weight of all my mistakes, all the times I have tried to follow Jesus and all the times I have failed. But each year on Maundy Thursday, we are invited to follow Jesus in loving service by having our feet washed, and washing other’s feet.
This week a friend wondered why footwashing was necessary in today’s society since hygiene has much improved and it didn’t seem too sanitary to wash ones feet in a common basin. I’ve been thinking a lot about that…why a common basin? Why do we share a common cup? Surely we could afford a cup for everyone and individual basins….although we’d at least need to double the Altar guild volunteers. For me, the shared water is like our shared prayer. It washes away my world-weariness and cynicism, reminds me to accept and practice forgiveness – even forgiveness for myself in all the ways my feet and mind and heart have failed to follow Jesus. It reminds me I’m not alone in my brokenness and insecurities.
A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. For me, the outward sign of the water and human hands is very much a means of grace. As we kneel and wash each other’s feet, it is a powerful reminder to me that we are made to carry each other’s burdens, to wipe away each other’s hurts, and to hold each other’s brokenness and insecurities gently. In the act, we acknowledge the Holy in the person in front of us, and maybe, just maybe begin to recognize it in ourselves.
This night reminds us in story and action that our blood, our lives, our whole selves are God’s own and that we are commanded to love and serve each other. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says as he responds to Peter, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In just a few minutes, you’ll be invited back to participate in footwashing, and you can choose to participate or not, but the invitation is there to come into Christ’s presence in this way. And then we will return to Christ’s table together, to share the bread that has been offered to us and the cup that has been poured out for us. Because this night is different, after communion the altar guild will take the sacrament that has been blessed and move it to the Altar of Repose, where people have volunteered to keep a vigil of prayer overnight. And then they will clear the altar as a symbol of Christ’s humiliation at the hands of the soldiers. They will remove everything, our altar and our hearts laid bare and exposed. There will be no blessing, dismissal, or postlude. Instead we will recite a psalm and sing together, as our service really continues into Good Friday.
We will do these things. And we will remember. And then we will take our feet out into the world to do the work God has given us to do: to love and serve each other as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i] Wash my hands, poem by Lucy Nanson, New Zealand.http://seashellseller.blogspot.com/2012/04/maundy-thursday-wash-my-hands.html