For more than a decade now, I have grown to value traditions of more formal denominations than mine. Because of them, I have more thoughtfully considered many biblical truths that perhaps have become too familiar. The Easter season has become more meaningful and precious as I have participated in Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Stations of the Cross at a nearby Anglican church, and I have seen with fresh eyes the death of Christ.
The Thursday of Holy Week, called Maundy Thursday, is observed by many denominations as a remembrance of the commands given the night before Jesus was crucified, including the command to do as Jesus did when he washed their feet. The word maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command.
The apostle John records the story of that Thursday evening as Jesus and his close followers met in the upper room for the Seder, or Passover meal, and then went to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 13-17).
Only in John’s gospel do we learn that after they all arrived for dinner, Jesus bent down and washed the disciples’ feet and instructed them to do the same for one another (John 13:1-17). In that culture a host normally supplied water for guests to wash their own feet or had a servant wash them. He certainly didn’t participate!
Can you imagine the Creator, the Lord God Almighty lowering himself to wash dirty, nasty feet?
On Maundy Thursday some churches observe an actual foot-washing, while others remember the command to wash one another’s feet as symbolic of the principle behind the practice—humbly serving others.
A few years ago I participated in a foot washing with a small group. It was uncomfortable to wash someone else’s feet, but I found it more humbling to allow someone to wash mine. It felt like I was uncovering myself. I understand why Peter responded to Jesus by saying, “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8). Having someone highly respected serve me like that uncovered something within me that I didn’t like showing. And what if the someone were Jesus?
Isn’t realizing that Jesus uncovers who we really are humbling? He doesn’t have to wash our feet to show us our failures and sins. But all too often pride rears its ugly head and we feel that we somehow deserve what he gives us out of his mercy and grace. We compare ourselves to others and forget that the Lord of the universe lowered himself to serve you and me, forcing us to admit who we really are.
Another command Jesus gave later that night was to love one another as he loved us (John 15:12). His love is sacrificial and unconditional. He humbled himself by serving his creatures— washing their physical feet and then submitting to a horrible, humiliating, and painful death for our sakes. And he looks straight at us, sees the filth of our sin laid bare, and loves us anyway.
How can we show that same unselfish love and gracious servanthood to those around us today?
Consider reading the gospel stories of the passion and crucifixion as we move through the next days of Holy Week. Let’s weep over what our sins did to Jesus and consider what it cost him to defeat the powers that had us captive. Let’s uncover ourselves and confess who we really are. Then Sunday we can truly celebrate his victory in the resurrection over sin and death! Hallelujah!