Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical way in which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
Tonight, some of us have come here specifically to perform the ancient Christian ritual of foot-washing in which we seek to imitate Jesus, the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Some of us will recoil from this intimate act of pure service. To touch another person crosses a boundary. But piercing that boundary seems to me to have the potential of beginning to free us from the burden of fear. I think that this is what Jesus was doing when he stooped to wash the disciples’ feet. Trying to soothe his own fear in seeking the nearness and closeness of those who were closest to him. Indeed, seeking their very physicality and longing to touch them.
But, intimacy presupposes trust. Without trust, intimacy is impossible. That makes touching another fraught with risk. And this is something that we need to acknowledge to ourselves and one another. Something to seriously consider before we undertake what we are about to do. Feet in particular have always carried connotations of intimacy and closeness. It’s a theme that resonates through both Old and New Testament books.
Some will not be able to perform this act. For one reason or for a hundred reasons, this might be something that we are unable to do. Possibly it carries too much risk for some of us. If that is where you find yourself, suspend self-judgment; simply let that be.