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.

 

March 24, 2016

The Tradition of Maundy Thursday

Over the past five years 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. This article appeared twice at Thinking Out Loud, but this is its first time here…

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)

What’s that saying? “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” Today I felt somewhat spiritually outclassed.

I spoke with someone and asked what their church was doing for Holy Week. They told me that their church was doing a service on Thursday, as well as Good Friday.

Thursday is called Maundy Thursday. The theological page Theopedia doesn’t cover it for some strange reason, but the regular Wikipedia site offers two explanations for the name, of which I give you the first:

FootwashingAccording to a common theory, the English word Maundy in that name for the day is derived through Middle English, and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:34) by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. The phrase is used as the antiphon sung during the “Mandatum” ceremony of the washing of the feet, which may be held during Mass or at another time as a separate event, during which a priest or bishop (representing Christ) ceremonially washes the feet of others, typically 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community.

As an aside, if you’re into church hopping, this is the day for you:

The tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday is an ancient practice, probably originating in Rome, where early pilgrims visited the seven pilgrim churches as penance.

Anyway, this church is having a foot washing as part of their Thursday service, and I was told, “Come and join us and we will wash your feet.”

I’ve never said that to anyone. And I’ve never washed anyone’s feet. I’m not totally comfortable with doing this or having it done for me. But the Biblical mandate to do this is quite clear. I feel like my spiritual pilgrimage is somewhat incomplete, like the person who has never been to Israel (or Wheaton, Illinois; the one time Evangelical equivalent, now displaced by Colorado Springs or Nashville; I’m not sure which.)

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)

Does anyone see a loophole here? An opt-out clause? A reason why this doesn’t apply in the current dispensation?

I don’t.


We covered this topic briefly here at C201 two years ago. Here’s a link to that article, plus three others we linked to at that time, plus the video we ran that day.

For more reading:

December 19, 2010

The Servant King by Graham Kendrick

This morning while we were singing “Joy to the World,” I was reminded again that only the first verse is, strictly speaking, Christmas-oriented.  The other three commonly sung verses would fit better at Easter.

Which brings us to a similar situation with “The Servant King.”   Although I just posted another Graham Kendrick song a few weeks ago,  I always associate this associate this song with Christmas, even though it speaks more of Christ’s death and resurrection.     (Another song, which also begins incarnationally is “Here I Am To Worship,” which works well at this time of year.)

This song originates in the UK, and is well-known to Canadians, but probably many of my American readers are not familiar with it.     The lyrics appear onscreen.

Phil 2:5 (NIV)In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

(Some similar writing to “The Servant King”  can be found in Kendrick’s Meekness and Majesty, another song known well in England and Canada, but not so much in the U.S.  We’ll post that one here in a few days.)