I give you a new commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you. By this the world shall know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.
Yeah, brace yourself. It’s church talk.
Maundy Thursday is the beginning of the three-night observance leading up to Easter, known as the Great Triduum. I had to go check the spelling. Not everyone knows (or cares) that Easter is not a day or a holiday, it is a season. There are three nights of preparation leading up to Easter Sunday, and then forty days of celebration thereafter. More chocolate for everyone!
Maundy Thursday is my favorite service of the entire year. This year will be a little off, because our services are conducted via Facebook Live in the interest of sanity and health. I haven’t yet asked my husband and son if we will be washing each other’s feet, and while my son and I love to sing, it’s not quite the same with just the two of us. (My husband declines to sing, as his voice… well, let’s just say he has many talents that do not involve singing).
Often on Maundy Thursday, our choir would be singing my favorite anthem, written by Ragan Courtney, one I love so much I asked them to sing it at my wedding and have asked my husband to please remember to have them sing it at my funeral:
In remembrance of me, eat this bread.
In remembrance of me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of me, pray for the time
that God’s own will is done.
It is the service that remembers the Last Supper, the Seder among Jesus and the disciples. Everyone knows how that night ended, with betrayal and terror and people fleeing into the night in fear for their lives, religious and political oppression crashing down on their heads. But what I tend to remember is the beginning: a group of people gathering to honor their faith, and their leader startling them by washing their feet.
I leave it to the true Biblical scholars and historians to go into the details of why this was absolutely staggering in the cultural mores of the time, as shocking as when a woman used precious perfume and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet. But I think one of the true reflections of faith is not necessarily what an action or story meant to people at the time or even how it has been interpreted through the centuries, but the lesson we take from it today.
In remembrance of me, heal the sick.
In remembrance of me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of me, open the door
and let your brother in.
For me, the story and the way my church chooses to symbolize it is a central tenet of my own faith: let us be servants to one another. In the Maundy Thursday service of the Episcopal Church, people may choose to have their feet washed by the priest before the altar. This is done in a ritualistic manner, with bare feet and a basin placed in the center of the aisle.
The priest states in his prayer beforehand that none should be so aware of their servanthood than those whom God has called to be his ministers, and that he does this to remember whose servant he is. And, as he says, we are then called to be servants to others.
Some people don’t like it. They don’t always choose to participate. Some parishes to which I’ve belonged had almost complete participation in the foot-washing; at last year’s service, there were fewer than ten, I think. And that’s one of the nifty things about being Episcopalian: that’s okay. Do or do not, as thou wilt.
Sure, it’s awkward and weird. We don’t usually take our shoes off in public, at least in an Episcopal church. We don’t usually let other people wash our feet as long as we are capable of doing it ourselves and not indulging in a pedicure.
But then, there are so many things in faith that ask us to set aside How It’s Always Done and do something different.
Take, eat and be comforted
Drink, and remember too
That this is my Body and precious Blood
Shed for you
Being a lifelong Episcopalian means I’ve seen the footwashing performed in many different ways. It’s the old joke: ask five Episcopalians for their theological opinion and you’ll get six different answers.
At my church for the last couple of decades, the priest washes everyone’s feet, while the choir sings in the background. At another church I attended in the past, each person washes the next person’s feet. This is logistically more difficult, but I like it better: servants to one another. As the person in front of me washes my feet, so I will wash the feet of the person after me.
At yet another church I attended, the entire service was removed from the sanctuary into the parish hall. It was an extremely small church, and they chose a different rite, that celebrates remarkably similar to a Seder meal. We sat at a table instead of pews, ate small symbolic pieces of food, and washed each others’ feet when the time came. It was not an attempt to co-opt the Seder so much as it was paying homage to our ancestors and acknowledging our roots, respecting that the traditions we follow have their origins in faiths older than our own.
As I have washed the feet of my fellow parishioners, I found it among the most moving and spiritual experiences of my life as a woman of faith. I felt closer to my fellow parishioners, and closer to our heritage and the experiences of the people in the upper room.
In remembrance of me, search for truth.
In remembrance of me, always love.
To me, the most direct and beautiful expression of faith is not in words but in actions. When we choose to treat one another with love and respect, we are offering witness to the world. It’s easy to sit in judgment and lecture someone else about what they should believe and how they should live appropriate to Scripture or doctrine. It’s not so easy to offer kindness in return for anger, to set aside darker impulses in favor of forgiveness, or to recall that we are not the judges of all the world. True sin is to presume to know the mind of God, and to pass judgment in His name.
It can be difficult for us to listen to the cascade of snide remarks, jokes about Zombie Jesus or Magic Sky Fairy from friends and family who would never be so disrespectful of another faith… and then we must remember how many of our own faith have used far worse weapons than words against others.
We are all beholden to one another. It was the final lesson our teacher attempted to give, and the one at which we have failed the most miserably.
I know more than most how people can come together and help each other when they choose. I have experienced far more of the love and generosity of friends, family and community than was my fair share. I continue to strive to give back what I have received, to pay it forward in whatever way I can, but I know that my balance will always be in the red.
As the service ends, the altar is stripped. Everything is removed, leaving bare wood. It is sometimes disconcerting to see the trappings removed, a reminder that these sacred things are only things. Perhaps we need to strip everything down to the floor sometimes in order to truly see what is important.
Afterward we remain in silent prayer and meditation for as long as we wish, so we can watch with Him one bitter hour. Yet it is never bitter to me, a time of silence, of prayer and stillness. We are rarely still in this crazed life, and peace can be hard to find.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Let me not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.
Allow me to wash your feet, and then you will wash the feet of the one who comes after you. What I do for you, you do for another.
And thus the five thousand are fed.
In remembrance of me, don’t look above
But in your heart for God.
In remembrance of me.