Today is Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate the Last Supper. It is the first of three days of solemn reflection as we walk with Jesus through the events leading up to his crucifixion. The word “maundy” is the name for the Christian rite of foot washing. But it actually comes from the Latin word for “commandment,” found in Jesus’ explanation to his disciples after he washed their feet: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Foot washing was an ancient rite of hospitality – a host would offer water to a guest so that they could wash their own feet, or perhaps the host would have a servant do this ignoble task. Jesus breaks custom by washing his disciples’ feet himself, turning the assumed hierarchy upside down.
In this passage of John we meet Jesus on Maundy Thursday, directly on the heels of washing his disciples’ feet. This is the beginning of Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” also known as the “farewell prayer,” the longest recorded prayer said by Jesus in the gospels. It demonstrates another way that Jesus is the King of an upside-down kingdom. The Son of God stoops to wash their feet like a common servant, and then he lifts his head to heaven to intercede on their behalf.
As he intercedes, Jesus talks a lot about glory. He is speaking in both past and future tense when he prays about his glory and glorifying the Father. We know that the cross is paradoxically the ultimate symbol of Jesus' glory – the dirty, excruciatingly painful, humiliating cross. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is precisely that kind of glory. He asks that he be glorified in his disciples – in the humble ways we love and show hospitality to one another. When we wash one another's feet (literally or figuratively) we are somehow manifesting the name of the Father and bringing glory to him.
Maundy Thursday is not anyone’s favorite service. Touching someone’s feet is uncomfortable, eliciting awkward laughter as we flush at the silliness of such an archaic and intimate gesture. I know I echo many Adventers who might be tempted to just skip this service altogether (after all, it takes place on Capitol Hill! It’s a school night! There’s no parking!). But this ancient Christian rite allows us to enter into the great drama of Holy Week in a deeply tangible and incarnational way. We have the chance to imitate Christ’s generosity and humility by participating in his last act of love before he went to the cross, washing each other’s wintered feet.
So, come tonight. Experience the full drama of Holy Week this year, and taste the edges of Christ's glorious humility.
Advent will be co-hosting a Maundy Thursday service tonight with Church of the Resurrection at 7:00 p.m. at Capitol Hill Seventh-Day Adventist (914 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.)
Deborah Tepley is Advent’s Executive Director. She is a huge fan of HASfit workouts, YNAB budgeting software, and Luke’s fresh bread. She lives in Petworth with her husband, Luke Jackson; TJ, Bethany and Mary Hayley Fleming; and two cats.