As we walk through Holy Week 2020, we’re taking time to consider what it will mean to celebrate Easter while we’re unable to gather with others. To read Monday’s post, which kicked off this theme, click here.

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Today is Maundy Thursday.  It’s the day that Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples.  The Passover meal is an ancient Jewish ritual that is a reminder, and a reenactment, of the night that God spared the Israelites from death as God rescued them out of slavery in Egypt.  After Jesus shared the Meal with his disciples, he instituted what we now call the Lord’s Supper, or communion.  After the meal and the new Lord’s Supper ritual were concluded, Jesus and his disciples went to a garden where Jesus wanted to pray.  It was to this garden that Jesus’s disciple Judas brought Jewish authorities who wanted to have Jesus arrested and killed.  Judas pointed out Jesus to the authorities, who then seized Jesus and began to parade him through a series of sham trials in the night that ultimately led to his condemnation and death.

Maundy Thursday begins the portion of Holy Week which comprises the Passion of the Messiah.  On Thursday night we begin our somber walk to the cross, which ultimately leads to the resurrection.  But why do we call it “Maundy” Thursday.  What does the word “maundy” even mean?

The Meaning of Maundy

The word “maundy” actually refers to another thing that Jesus did when he gathered with his disciples to celebrate Passover on the Thursday night of Holy Week.  “Maundy” is a word that refers to a ceremonial foot-washing.  During his time with the disciples that night, Jesus took off his cloak, put a towel around his waist, and knelt in front of his disciples to wash their feet:

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.

John 13:1-5

For Jesus to wash the feet of his disciples was a truly humiliating act.  For guests of a dinner to have their feet washed would have been common.  But it’s a task that would have been completed by the lowest person in the room — a servant or a slave.  Certainly the most esteemed man in the room would not be called upon to wash the feet of the others.

So why did Jesus do it?  And why is this the event that gives name to the entire occasion, Maundy Thursday?

The Power of Presence

The disciple John’s account, quoted above, says that when Jesus knew that it was almost time for him to leave earth he decided to “love [the disciples] to the end”.  And what he does next is a humiliating act of service.  He makes himself lower than the men he has grown to love.  As he makes himself lower than them, he also connects himself to them in the moment.  

Soon, in the following hours, Jesus will share a new ritual with his disciples that we still celebrate today.  As he shows them how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper he says that his body and blood will be really present in the bread and the wine “as often as they” share them as a part of the Sacrament.  This is a very high, lofty idea.  And before Jesus goes high and lofty, he goes very low and earthy.

Before Jesus leaves the earth he reminds his disciples that he is real.  He is with them.  He is present.  And his presence moves them.  In fact, the power of his presence unnerves the disciples.  It’s unnerving to the point that it causes Peter to insist that Jesus not wash his feet.  Peter doesn’t know what to do with a Messiah who is so close, so real.

So in one of his last acts as a free man on earth, Jesus decides to make himself low so that his disciples can feel his presence as a real, earthy human being.  And it’s this interaction which gives color to all that follows on Friday and Sunday.  If the foot-washing is real, so is the crucifixion and the death.  If the foot-washing is real, so is the resurrection and the movement that it ignites.

Our Earthy Maundy Thursday

At Christmas we awaken to the promise that God is “with us” in Jesus the Messiah.  During Holy Week we are reminded of the full humanity of the presence of Jesus the Messiah.  And now as we struggle with our own mortality and fragility today, we remember that Jesus is still with us.  He is real and he is present.

Take time on this Maundy Thursday to sit with the reality of the presence of Jesus.  Connect with the people who are closest to you.  Look each other in the eye to feel one another’s presence.  And in one another look for Jesus to come through in the power of  presence.

If you’d like an order that can be practiced at home for remembering and reenacting the Last Supper, you can find resources in this folder.

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