Remembering and reflecting on the Thursday before Easter Sunday has a place in church history. The day is called Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday gained acceptance as a regular practice in the 4th century. Since then, cultures throughout the world have celebrated Maundy Thursday with various traditions. Here is a small sample:
- In Britain, the monarch gives alms, which are coins, to senior citizens. This is also called “Maundy Money,” which is a common practice outside of the US, though the ages of recipients differ.
- Swedish children dress as witches and go door to door for candy, coins, or Easter eggs. This is due to the day’s association with folklore.
- In Bulgaria, participants decorate Easter eggs on Maundy Thursday.
- A state in India, Kerala, takes the holiday very seriously, with services often lasting until after midnight.
- In the Czech Republic, children may walk around making noise with rattles.
- All over the world, observers may participate in the tradition of visiting seven churches on Maundy Thursday.
Some of these traditions might seem cute, while others are worth avoiding.
The word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, which means command. In John 13 we read,
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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”– John 13:34–35
The gospel writer, John, places these words after Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20) and after celebrating the Passover (John 13:21-30). All four gospels mention the Last Supper, but only John pairs the Last Supper with the washing of the disciple’s feet. As a result, Maundy Thursday is an opportunity to reflect on both events and the commandment to love one another.
I attended a Catholic school between 1st and 12th grade. I will never forget when I was in middle school, and a nun anointed me to be Jesus in a play. (Now that I am older, it seems sacrilegious to personally portray Jesus. It seems odd to take a wretched sinner and have him pretend to be the sinless Savior. But I digress.) What part of the gospels was she going to ask me to do? The washing of the disciple’s feet from John 13. I do not remember what time of year the play took place, but I would guess it was the Thursday before Easter Sunday. At the time, washing the feet of 12 middle school kids seemed odd. Who wants their feet touched by another human being? Perhaps a few of the kids needed their feet washed. Middle school kids flee from a shower as a person flees from a plague. But what was the point of this demonstration? The clue is in verses 13-15.
You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.– John 13:13–15
Jesus is setting the example for his disciples. Jesus knows what will take place on Good Friday, but before Friday, Jesus instills a few more instructions. These disciples have seen Jesus multiple bread, fish, and wine. They witnessed Jesus control the weather and heal the lame. But now Jesus is washing their feet?! Another remarkable feature of this story is that Jesus washed the feet of the man who was about to betray him. In an exchange with Simon Peter, Jesus explains why he must wash their feet and not the other way around. And then Jesus says in verse 11, “Not all of you are clean,” which is an obvious reference to Judas. It is as if Jesus is saying to Judas, no matter how long I clean your feet, they will not become clean. Stepping back for a moment, John 13 is a remarkable scene of loving an enemy. Jesus is putting into action what he preaches. Jesus says during the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.– Matthew 5:43–45
All it took was 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Judas was an enemy of God. Nevertheless, Jesus bends to his knees, grabs a washcloth and basin, and washes his feet. When Jesus says to love your enemy, we are not to expect our enemy to love us in return. We are expected to simply love them well. Washing the feet of an enemy is a demonstration of love.
Grab the Basin?
Some feet would be unbearable to wash. There might be toenails that stretch a mile and foot fungus between the toes. I have seen feet that would make a 1st-century shepherd’s feet look like it belongs in a nail polish commercial. So if you have a phobia of feet, how do you apply this passage, especially on Maundy Thursday? The application is simple. Look for opportunities to love another person through acts of service. Look for the people who are in your closest circle. Jesus washed the feet of his closest friends. Perhaps you can strive to do acts of love toward a spouse, siblings, or dear friends. Further, if there is an enemy in your life, reflect on Jesus washing the feet of Judas. Finally, washing feet requires humility, so humble yourself and go and do likewise (John 13:15).
Celebrating the Passover
After washing their feet, Jesus pivots to celebrate the Passover, which we now call the Last Supper. Perhaps you have seen this iconic painting.
Jesus celebrates the Passover knowing that only He can ultimately deliver His people. Deliverance will occur in accordance with Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) and God’s divine plan (Ephesians 1:11). What happens during the Last Supper? The cat comes out of the bag. It is revealed to everyone that Judas will betray Jesus. I am not sure Jesus could be more direct. He says to everyone,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”– John 13:21
And then, a few verses later, Jesus says to Judas,
“What you are going to do, do quickly.”– John 13:27
Oddly, the rest of the disciples are oblivious to what is happening (vv. 28-30). But in the Last Supper, we read about a bitter moment that leads to death. But the combination of the two leads to deliverance.
So what is the point of the Last Supper? There are several takeaways from Last Supper. First, in each gospel, the Last Supper is celebrated as a foreshadowing of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is no dummy. He knows what he is doing. As the disciples were reflecting back on the moment God passed over the homes of the Israelites (Exodus 12), Jesus was remembering the future. Second, Jesus wants his disciples – past, present, and future – to heed his command to love one another. Jesus was repeating to them the 2nd greatest commandment. Functionally, love may take on a different shape. Love can be expressed with various words or with only a few. The circumstances may dictate how love is expressed. But one thing is sure, regardless of how love is expressed, the love for God must be the root. If love for God is not the root of loving others, then any other attempt at love is a counterfeit. Third, the Lord Jesus institutes this sacrament for the church’s perpetual remembrance (1 Corinthians 11:17-26). People easily forget. We need reminders. Therefore it is essential to remember the cross of Christ when the church gathers. At Redemption Hil, we remember every Sunday.
Maundy Thursday is about the humility of Christ exemplified by the washing of the disciple’s feet. Maundy Thursday should cause us to love our friends and our enemies. After washing feet, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal, knowing that ultimate deliverance would come through his sacrificial death.
Maundy Thursday leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ.