“I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”
So reads one of the anthems in our Maundy Thursday service, words Jesus speaks during John’s telling of the last supper (John 13:34). Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, calling them to follow his example of serving others. Afterwards he warns them of his upcoming betrayal, singling out Judas, but the disciples don’t understand. And then, as Jesus explains that he is going before them very soon, going somewhere they cannot follow, he instructs them to love one another as he has loved them. It is by this that everyone will know they are his disciples.
This is the mandate from which Maundy Thursday draws its name. Maundy comes from the Latin “mandatum,” meaning a mandate or command. In this case it stems from Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he has loved us. For many years, in different branches of our Christian family tree, people have symbolized that love and service by washing someone else’s feet.
In early accounts of this practice, popes are described washing the feet of monks, kings washing the feet of peasants. It is an inversion of this world’s concept of what power looks like and does. Rather than wielding power over others, they are making themselves servants, caring for those the world sees as the least and the last. One church I know in New Haven, CT, has a Maundy Thursday practice of offering a foot health clinic, in addition to foot washing, to the people experiencing homelessness that make up a large portion of their congregation. (If you’d like to learn more, you can check out Chapel on the Green.) At Redeemer, feet have been washed as a part of a Maundy Thursday meal. Last year, as we were still beginning to adjust to living our lives online, David+ washed his daughter Helena’s hands on Facebook live.
Whether it is a subversion of dominant power structures that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God; the care expressed to God’s most vulnerable children; or the tenderness of offering love to family and friends, Maundy Thursday is a day on which we memorialize Jesus’ commandment: to love one another as he has loved us.
This is all well and fine, you may be thinking — but we’re still in Lent 1. Why are you writing about Maundy Thursday now? There are still five Sundays to go!
Very true! We have plenty time left to journey with Jesus through the wilderness, on our way to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. And so I wonder, what would it be like if we entered into our Maundy Thursday mandate now, this early in Lent? What if we suffused all of Lent with the with the light of Christ’s love?
I recognize the ways that so many have been caring and serving for so long. Some people have been serving us in deep and powerful ways since this time last year: health care workers, grocery store employees, maintenance staff, and teachers, our postal and sanitation workers. They have been keeping us healthy, safe, and fed. You may have cared for people in your life in new ways, too: calling to check in on friends and family more, delivering groceries to a neighbor, praying hard. Our country is in flux as we question racist power structures that have led to the staggering loss of life and livelihood in Black and Brown communities, both from COVID-19 but also at the hands of our police and justice systems.
I recognize the ways that so many have been caring and serving for so long. And I don’t invite this practice as just one more thing to do, a chore to add to an already long list. (This is especially true for people on whom the expectation always falls to serve and care — that would reinforce the power dynamics of our world, rather dismantle them.) Instead, I invite you to consider Christ’s mandate this Lent as a lens through which we see our lives. What if we truly lived this as our operating instruction: to love one another as Jesus loves us?
Certainly, we would do it imperfectly. None of us are perfect, and none of us can love perfectly. It is part of being human; that is something only God can do. But we are still called to try! And loving others as Christ loves us does not mean that anyone should remain in an unhealthy relationship, or suffer abuse, or acquiesce to systems that deal death rather than life. It does not mean standing by as injustice is perpetrated — it is the direct opposite. In his love for us and for the world Jesus challenged the powers and principalities that tell us that we are less than beloved. He lifted up the lives of the people society devalued and oppressed, serving them before all others. And he called his disciples to do the same, to love with the same tenderness and passion that he did. Their service to the world was a sign of that love.
As we journey through this season of Lent, look at the world in light of Christ’s commandment with the same renewed attention that we bring to it on Maundy Thursday. How might I love others as Christ loved me? We may not be able to wash each other’s feet this year, but we can continue on with Christ’s mandate. We can continue to discover new ways to love one another and the world.