Be a sole man (or woman)

Today is Maundy Thursday, the Christian holy day when, during an evening service, Christians have traditionally performed the rite of Washing of the Feet, which began with Jesus:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Maundy Thursday also commemorates the Last Supper, which is the final meal that Jesus shared with his apostles before his crucifixion. Here’s Leonardo da Vinci’s famous rendering of that scene:

It was at the Last Supper that the eucharist was instituted by Jesus:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:17-30)

So for Christians Maundy Thursday is huge.

If you’ve never been to a Maundy Thursday service, with all my heart I recommend going to one at a liturgical church near you (think Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic, possibly/probably Methodist, UCC, Presbyterian: you can always call a church or visit its website to see if it does a Maundy Thursday service). It’s a trip to have a stranger wash your feet, and for you to do the same to someone else. It sounds kind of gross and weird, I know. (Believe me, I know.) But when it’s actually happening—when people before the altar are kneeling and gently washing and then drying the feet of another—a magical, deeply affective humility, sadness and gratitude fills the church. If you’ve never done a Washing of the Feet, you’ll be amazed by the power of the experience. If you have, you know what I’m talking about.

Thanks to Unfundamentalist Christian Dan Wilkinson, of the blog Cooling Twilight, for making the above image for UC’s Facebook page.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    My Methodist church does something unique. They set out a table, and twelve people representing the disciples tell a brief statement about the person they are portraying. My husband is Peter for the third year in a row. When we do communion, the participants sitting in the places of a disciple.
    They did foot washing in the kooky fundy group I grew up in, but they refused any acknowledgement of Easter, instead attaching it, oddly to the OT Jewish holiday counter, with some interesting twists. I know foot washing was supposed to symbolize generosity and compassion, but it never felt that way to me, as it felt forced, mandatory and quite depressing. It was also the only time communion was taken, all year. I’ve not been able to get near such a ritual since, yet I well understand what it should represent.
    I’ll happily sit in my space in the choir loft…likely barefoot as usual, sing when needed, listen to the liturigy and the stories, take communion, and feel the moment of portent, this evening represents.

    • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James_Jarvis

      What you say really resonates with me. Too often in the church liturgy and ritual are carried out as something that is done out of tradition rather that something done to bring God’s people closer together or connects us to the divine. When carried out properly ritual binds us to the all those who have gone before us and all those that will follow us. When ritual becomes something done merely by rout, the words become empty vessels signifying nothing.

      • JenellYB

        Even worse, something done by obligation.

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          Exactly. When I hear, “you must” when someone speaks of ritual or belief, I want to clap my hands over my ears and sing “lalalalala” as loudly as I can. Being guilted into something or told that you are not following God unless… is something I can no longer bring myself to participate in.

          Rituals, and beliefs, should have personal relevance, at least most of the time. It can be as simple as the feeling of companionship and sharing when the communion cup is passed to you, and you pass it on to the next person, like we did last night, or it can be a whole lot of things, depending on the person

          • Jill

            We’ve done the religion of guilt and shame already, we know its outcome.

            The UCC church I attend repeats the bond of union every Sunday: we accept the religion of love and service, which Jesus lived and taught…

            This centers me into what I’m consciously doing and why. To love, to serve (myself as well as others), to connect and commune.

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            “we accept the religion of love and service, which Jesus lived and taught..”

            I love that, and to me IS the heart of my religion.

          • Jill

            If I remember I’ll post the whole Bond of Union statement for interest. I find it useful at any rate.

      • Jill

        For me, if a religious ritual doesn’t draw me closer to either God or my fellow human beings (or both), it’s a ritual not worth doing.

  • JenellYB

    The comment by Jesus ‘Those that have had a bath, need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.’ has seemed to mean to me that those who have cleansed themselves through discipleship to Him need only to wash their feet, symbolizing keeping our “walk” clean, how we live and go about what we do in the right spirit and motivation, and in washing one another’s, helping one another keep our walk clean.

  • SonjaFaithLund

    I went to a Maundy Thursday service today, and what was cool was the rector’s meditation partway through the service on the significance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet after eating.

    Because they had been at that house for a while, their feet had already been cleaned. It was completely unnecessary for Jesus to wash the feet again. Likewise, there are many ways God could have reconciled with humanity; being humbled, becoming human, befriending humanity, was completely unnecessary. But it’s what God chose to do. The washing of the feet, this rector said, was a gesture symbolizing the greater gesture of going beyond the necessary to something even better. We are not just God’s followers; because of the unnecessary actions taken, we are God’s friends.

    I like this church.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I do know what you are talking about.

    I was raised in a non-liturgical fundamentalist denomination that believed foot-washing was the third sacrament. We washed feet on a non-scheduled basis, but did it frequently. It is amazing, and surprising, how powerfully spiritual it is to participate.

  • DonRappe

    I received my first communion on the Maundy Thursday following the Palm Sunday on which I was confirmed. This still has meaning for me. I’m very happy that so many people get so much from the foot washing, which is optional for me and which I can’t help but associate with my former ticklishness. I certainly like foot washing better than fake Seders. I’m most likely to meditate on this day on the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. For me personally, this is related to the “real” divinity of Jesus and also provides a place in the universe, as I understand it, for the risen and transfigured Christ, Jesus.


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