Maundy Thursday is a time of rituals. The name derives, apparently, from the Latin mandatum, ‘commandment’, based on Jesus’s insistence that we love each other, and so today represents service and charity: we re-enact Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, we see the Queen give out Maundy Money to deserving pensioners (although this year it’s gone out through the post thanks to COVID-19. Times are strange.).
That love was, for Jesus, a very practical thing. The Son of God picks up a towel and a bowl of water, kneels down and takes the posture of a servant as he washes the sweaty, dirty, blistered feet of his followers. Here in the UK, we’ve developed another Thursday ritual over the last couple of weeks, cheering and clapping for the NHS from our doorsteps at 8:00pm, and I can’t help but bring the two together, especially the nurses and cleaners, porters and doctors who are holding things together while being over-worked and under-paid. I have a picture of Jesus washing hands and not feet, singing ‘happy birthday’ in a hospital staff room to make sure his timings are right.
There will be a lot of people grieving the cancellation of foot-washing services today, and I understand why. There’s an intimacy to our re-enactments that many find meaningful and moving. It can break through our pride and our self-consciousness and help us to practice humility, both washers and washees. Maundy Thursday helps us re-position ourselves, and that’s a particularly stark reminder this year, when we’re realising just how much we rely on those we take for granted, grocery workers and binmen suddenly on the frontline of a terrible pandemic. So maybe this year Jesus is also stacking shelves and emptying garbage, because although our church buildings are empty tonight, there’s still work to be done, love to share, feet to wash.
See, there’s a danger in washing each others’ feet in a nice, organised service (and how many people have a shower and change their socks right before going out, just so they’re plenty clean before the pastor and his bowl gets anywhere near them?). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, showed them love and grace, but not long after he’s sweating blood in Gethsemane and instead of praying with him, Peter and the gang are falling asleep, right when Jesus needed them.
(We also don’t read of any of the disciples then washing Jesus’s feet. Well, apart from Mary earlier, and that caused all sorts of trouble.)
It’s easy to be a servant for an hour under controlled conditions. But we’re in the time of the Coronavirus, and conditions are anything but controlled. There are people who can’t go out to get shopping, there are those who can’t get hold of essentials because someone else decided to panic buy and start hoarding. There are people who can’t go on lockdown, key workers who have to be out there on the front line, putting themselves at risk, often without adequate PPE (and the list of medical staff who are passing away because of this is getting longer by the day). There are parents who now need to home-school, there are kids who are now trying to learn in a liminal space and time that’s beyond their experience and yet is adding to the climate change and economic chaos and political confusion that have marked recent generations. There are those at heightened risk from the virus because of inequality, poverty and lack of privilege and access.
And then there are those who have to make life and death decisions. There are those who can’t be with their loved ones in their final moments, there are families who have to choose who gets to go to the funeral and who has to mourn alone. There are those asking ultimate questions to which all our pre-prepared answers may feel trite.
And there are those who are vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, the people who, from the beginning, have been told that they’re the ones most at risk, the ones who are spoken of almost as if they’re expendable, the ones who are left in limbo as political decisions are made in haste, the ones being asked to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ forms, the ones who know that, if they catch this thing, they may well not recover. People whose feet are perfectly clean but whose hearts are breaking.
On this Maundy Thursday, the whole world is a Gethsemane. Jesus weeps alongside us, but as the Church we’re called, not necessarily to wash feet or carry out a ritual, but to embrace servanthood, justice and love. That’s not something we can be responsible for purely on an individual level – the world is big, we are small – but that’s why Church is a team sport. And in the middle of all this, I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is with binmen and nurses and carers and delivery drivers and today, and every other day, is a day to follow His lead.