Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, O God, that we may serve you today and always. Amen
When I was a young girl, my friends and I didn’t really like going to the Thursday service in Holy Week because our parents always made us join in for the foot washing ritual — so we knew we were going to have to wash someone’s feet, probably an adults, and worse yet, someone would wash ours – and for 11 year old girls that was not something we looked forward to. The Maundy Thursday Service itself seemed a bit off-putting and a tad frightening, the service was quite and the lighting subdued and dark. In the church I grew up in, we didn’t have an agape dinner to enjoy and eat together as a church community. The service was about the Last Supper: it just felt sad to an 11 year old….. And, I never knew what Maundy meant, and I was too embarrassed to ask — so there was just some sort of disquiet and uncomfortableness about the service. It took years before I really understood and appreciated just how amazing the evening truly was.
From the beginning of this service until the Sunday’s Easter service, we are involved in one ongoing worship service, which is why we will have no dismissal at the end of our time together tonight or after our service tomorrow. It is the most solemn service of the entire Christian year – called the Triduum. Some of you will have been reading about the Triduum in the communications you’ve been getting from the church over the last few weeks. But just in case there is somebody out there who doesn’t know what Maundy means and are too embarrassed to ask, you can find a number of definitions, but the one that comes from the Latin or mandatum, and became Maundy in Middle English, means to give a command – or a commandment.
This is the evening when we hear about Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night before he is crucified. It is the evening he instituted what became our celebration of Holy Eucharist, the evening he gave the commandment, a mandatum, for this sacrament to be done for his remembrance.
But Jesus did something else very profound that night – he gave us another mandatum — to serve. He taught about hospitality and through that, about service and love. In Jesus’s day, a very important act of hospitality given to guests by a host was for the host’s servants to wash the guests’ feet when they arrived because feet could get very dirty since walking was the main mode of transportation. But before the beginning of the meal we call the Last Supper, Jesus, not a servant, got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist and did the washing of feet.
He is very clear that this particular act of foot washing is not about cleanliness but rather about relationship – about love shown through service. He wants his disciples to understand that they are to extend and grow God’s kingdom when he is gone and that they are to do this by serving God, each other and the people they encounter. Having startled his disciples by washing their feet as the example of service, he tells them that if he, their Lord, can wash their feet, then they can wash other’s. He goes on to tell them that he has set the example, so they should do as he has done – he has given a mandatum…..a very clear example, no ifs and or buts!
Jesus turned the world upside down when he took on the role of servant and washed the disciples’ feet. I have often wondered why we don’t have more visual reminders of this act, this profound teaching from Jesus, in our churches. Maybe we should have a statue of a bowl and pitcher or of a basin and towel somewhere in church to remind us of this commandment to serve that Jesus gave us that evening. We began this Lenten season by marking our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday — and some people received those ashes in unusual places, such as on street corners or on train station platforms. Maybe we should be outside today in similar types of places — offering to wash the feet of people when they pass by — as a reminder to pay attention to Jesus’ commandment to answer the call to serve.
Deacons wear a stole that goes over the left shoulder, crosses over the chest and falls down the right side toward the feet. The Deacon’s stole represents the towel that Jesus picked up and used when he washed his disciple’s feet. A few weeks ago, I chose the first of the stoles I will wear after ordination and I was filled with awe — and the fact that I chose this visual reminder to serve during the church season of Lent, the season that leads to the Triduum, only reinforced the awesomeness of the meaning of the Deacon’s servant ministry to me.
But just how far does acting on this kind of love through service stretch you and me? Jesus’s teaching on the subject makes it pretty clear that the kind of love, and resulting service about which he is speaking, ignores all the boundaries we human beings create. Ethnicity, gender, age, educational level, social status, and even — maybe especially in this time of the presidential campaign and the terror and violence in the world, political or religious affiliation, – all the false lines and divisions we create, are erased by Christ’s divine love — that we are to make concrete by following Jesus’ example of service.
Once a year, during the Triduum, Episcopalians leave our places of worship in dark, ponderous silence. Once a year we begin to peer into the abyss. No wonder my friends and I had the reaction we did when we were younger. What we hadn’t heard was Jesus’ message of love and his call to share that love. I hadn’t heard him tell me to give glory to God through the joy in loving and serving my neighbor, especially those in need.
When we arise tomorrow morning, let us remember that through the symbolic act we perform tonight of washing each other’s feet, we acknowledge our relationship to Christ and to one another – no exceptions. And each morning after, may we remember the words we heard tonight in the Gospel — “do what I have done to you”. Jesus has set the example. He not only told us — he showed us how — with no exceptions. He gave us a new commandment, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,….. if you have love for one another”.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, let us all pick up our towel and be Christ to one another!