Christianity 201

March 31, 2021

Maundy Thursday and the Act of Foot-Washing

Over the past decade we’ve seen a major shift in Evangelical observance of what the Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches call Holy Week. There is much more consciousness of Lent and even debates — because of the rapid shift in some denominations — as to its incorporation in Evangelicalism. While we’ve always been observant of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there is also an increasing awareness of Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday.

The particular centerpiece of this observance is Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In a sense, it’s the last action of great significance he will do besides leading (and updating) the Passover meal. He will give the disciples further teaching, he will pray, he will heal a Roman guard’s ear that Peter has impulsively severed, and then beyond this things seem to shift, humanly speaking out of his control as he faces Pilate, then Herod and then speaks a few sentences from the cross.

I think it’s interesting that John includes this narration — none of the synoptic gospels have it — and yet does not include the familiar Last Supper narrative. Those who produce what is called a harmony of the gospels, place the washing of the disciples feet first, as some activity from the meal — some teaching about his eventual betrayal, and the particular instruction to Judas who then exits — is covered later in John 13. And yet, the evidence from verse 2 is that “the evening meal was in progress,” (italics added) so perhaps the foot-washing happened more in the middle.

The meal is highly structured and drawn out. For example we think of Jesus taking “the cup,” but there are two cups mentioned, scholars say they shared a third special cup, and that there ought to have been a fourth one, but the meal is not completed in that sense because Jesus is saying that the meal will be completed at what we call the marriage supper of the Lamb. So I’m going to place the foot-washing in the middle of the overall ceremonial part of the dinner.

Here is the text,

2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. ~John 13: 2-5 (NIV)

I’ve heard people loosely use the term, “the sacrament of foot-washing,” but the Roman Catholic Church, who one might think of as the arbiters of all things sacrament doesn’t include it. Why is that? Father Joe, who writes at Blogger Priest replied in 2014, pointing out that the sacraments have to have particular meaning and this raises “the difficulty was as to what it signified.” He continues,

St. Augustine made a connection with baptism (and yet there was already a formula for that sacrament). Most authorities and the Church associated it with ordination to the priesthood. Indeed, it plays something of this role in the (spiritualized) Gospel of John. There too the apostles adopted the laying on of hands upon the head of a man as the manner in which he was called to holy orders. Today, the foot washing increasingly refers to our commission as servants or disciples. That is already sufficiently signified in our baptism and confirmation. So I guess the short answer is that the sacraments are not capricious. There was no need for an eighth sacrament. However, once a year it does function as a “sacramental” that emphasizes both the importance of the priesthood and our call to live out our Christianity with humility and charity.

So what’s maundy about Maundy Thursday?

It’s actually a Latin word taken from the first words of Jesus later in the chapter,

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you” (13:34)

Jesus continues,

14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. ~John 13: 14-17 (NIV)

In my reading, verse 15 is just as clear as the instruction to observe the Lord’s Supper as we do in the Eucharist, or Communion or Lord’s Table in our modern services. So why the one and not the other?

A few years back this was part of a discussion in the Reformed community page on Reddit.  One answer reads,

A sacrament is an external sign and seal of a deeper spiritual mystery instituted by God, which is a special category occupied by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There are many other things that Christ exhorts us to do, but not everything he tells us to do is a sacrament.

So we don’t accept foot washing as a sacrament because it was never instituted as a sacrament. There are clear commands in the New Testament to baptize in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) and observe the Lord’s Supper–“Drink of it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). And then both are repeated elsewhere in the epistles, with information on the spiritual mysteries behind them.

Foot washing, on the other hand, was something Christ did to show the disciples and his Church how they should treat one another. It wasn’t instituted as an external sign that should be repeated by the church in all ages.

Another commented,

There is a difference between the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper. The Last Supper is what Jesus ate with this disciples before his crucifixion, and that included foot washing. The Lord’s Supper is what he commanded his church to do, in commemoration of the Last Supper and in looking forward to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We were commanded to continue eating the bread and drinking the cup. We were not commanded wash feet – that was something that Jesus in particular did, and indeed only Jesus could do, as you can see when Jesus rebukes Peter. It would be inappropriate for us to do foot washing for the same reason that it was inappropriate for Peter to try and wash Christ’s feet. Like Peter we cannot make Christ clean – in fact it is unwittingly blasphemous to even think that – rather, only Christ can make us clean. Partaking of the bread and wine, however, demonstrate and are a reminder that Christ’s body was broken and his blood was shed for us, and that we need it.

There are more responses like this, but I can’t say I find them all totally satisfying.

One person wrote,

I’d find it easier to make an argument that foot-washing should be a sacrament than to make one that it shouldn’t.

What do you think?


Postscript:

People I know who have participating in foot-washing have described it as a sacred experience, a holy moment if you will that they will always treasure. But we seem to dismiss it as a First Century practice no longer applicable. The website Beliefnet offers alternatives.

…Many Christians like to show their humility and love in other ways that do not require the literal washing of feet. Some churches will promote this to help strengthen the bond within their congregation. Other ways you can symbolically wash the feet of those you want to be of service to include:

  • Engage in a random act of kindness
  • Leave flowers on a friend’s doorstep
  • Call someone just to check in on how they are doing
  • Share words of love and appreciation
  • Make amends for something you have done that may have been hurtful
  • Stand up for those who are unable to do so for themselves
  • Support someone, despite if you agree with their choices
  • Lend a listening ear to someone going through tough times
  • Bring a new person to your church
  • Use your God-given gifts in new ways

The main purpose of foot-washing is caring for others, cleansing us in a sin-cursed world, and to emulate Jesus in everything we do. As long as there are genuine emotions behind the act, the service to others will bring feelings of humility and empathy. It is a beneficial act for both parties.

So whether figurative or literal, is there someone whose feet you might wash this week?


Related worship song – a must listen!

If you don’t know this song, which we’ve featured here before, I urge you to take the time to experience this Graham Kendrick composition.

 

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