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.