Maundy Thursday Meditation
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
There are those who say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, these strange days have taught us that is not necessarily true. And its truth comes in such a simple lesson – the washing of hands. Who would have known that people of all ages, even the oldest of us, needed to learn how to properly wash our hands? We have discovered that it is one of the most important things we can do in fighting this virus.
Washing hands is important. Our Jewish ancestors were fastidious about that, as evidenced by many references to it in the Talmud. There are references to it in the Gospels as well. However, we don’t have much information on foot washing, except this well-known passage from John. And its context is important, I think, because it has been traditionally associated with Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper.
What is interesting to me is that Christians instituted the Lord’s Supper as one of our regular practices, but foot washing seems to have been, for the most part, excluded. It seems a bit inconsistent. Amy Frykholm, the gifted Christian Century writer, seems to agree: “The history of the church does not necessarily confirm this instinct of mine. To me foot washing has a sacramental quality—a place where heaven meets earth, where the scandal of the incarnation is as vivid and present as it is in the Eucharist. But foot washing has never been a sacrament. In fact, church historians have found no instances in which the idea of foot washing as a sacrament was even considered. John’s Gospel is the only one to mention foot washing. The passage in John begins with the briefest mention of the supper that would become so central to the Christian tradition. Instead, the passage introduces foot washing via a declaration of Jesus’ love in the context of the betrayal that will lead to his death. ‘And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.’”
An article in a denominational magazine awhile back contained an interview with Francois Clemmons, who some of us may remember as the policeman on Fred Rogers’ television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Clemmons joined the cast of the show in 1968, becoming the first African-American to have a recurring role on a kids’ TV series. In the interview he talked about the years they worked together and a particular scene that Clemmons remembered with great emotion. It was from a 1969 episode, in which Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day. Clemmons recalled the moment Fred Rogers “invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” He went on to say, “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.” Clemmons says the scene, which the two also revisited in their last episode together in 1993, touched him in a way he hadn’t expected. There may be something important we’re missing when we don’t practice this very personal gesture of foot washing.
Years ago Lisa and I heard Pastor Joanna Adams preach at Haley Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dr. Adams has retired these days, but I still remember something she said, “In the years that I’ve been a minister, I have known some winning churches and lots of winners in them. One who comes to mind is a young man in my first congregation, an advertising executive on the rise in his profession. Every Tuesday night he volunteered at the foot clinic for the homeless people who made their home in our church gymnasium. Robert was his name. He was the nattiest dresser I had ever seen. I can picture him now in my mind’s eye, wearing a crisp shirt, red suspenders. I see him sitting on a stool before the chair on which one of our homeless guests is sitting. He takes the guest’s feet and places them in a basin of warm water. He takes a towel and dries the feet. He applies ointment to their sores. The ritual ends with the gift of a clean, white pair of socks. I see the man in the chair, as he slips his socks on, brush a tear from his own cheek — a tough guy whom no one has touched with tenderness in a very long time. I once asked Robert, the advertising executive on the move, why he came to the foot clinic every week. He brushed me aside, saying, ‘I figure I have a better chance of running into Jesus here than most places. That’s all.’”
That’s all? On this Maundy Thursday I want to run into Jesus, too. Perhaps a towel and a basin of water might help me do that.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- What is the most meaningful communion you’ve ever experienced? Why did it affect you so? What helps you draw close to God?
- In this time of isolation and distancing, the power of touch is something we all miss. Think of touching with the heart. Is that possible? How might you pray it into being?
- Pray today for the homeless, whose needs for care and compassion have escalated during this difficult time.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Maya Angelou’s “Touched by An Angel”
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.