On Maundy Thursday we would normally gather to celebrate the Eucharist of the Last Supper followed by the removal from the Church any sign of colour and celebration so that the place looks stark. We are unable to do this and so we offer the Gospel reading set for Maundy Thursday and a reflection by Anne, one of our Lay Readers. This is followed by the Gospel of the Watch, split in two by a time of silence for prayer and reflection. Since this is set at night it can best be used in the late evening once the activity of the day is over.
John 13.1-17, 31-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Jesus comes together on this night, with his disciples in an Upper Room, to share a last Passover Meal. Before they eat, Jesus takes off his robe, ties a towel around his waist and sets about washing his disciples' feet. This is the menial task of a servant, to wash the street dust from the feet of the guests, but Jesus has no hesitation in doing this lowly yet intimate service for his disciples.
Peter protests but Jesus quiets his objections and completes his task. It is as much pride to resist service as it is pride that can stop people serving others.
Having your feet washed would have been much more common at that time, a regular part of being received as a guest. When I was in Uganda, before every meal when guests were present, the hosts would come round with a bowl, a jug of water, a sliver of soap and a towel and water would be poured over the hands of everyone present, in turn, that they might have clean hands for eating. This was part of the ritual of hospitality.
Foot washing for us is rather more excruciatingly embarrassing as we tend to keep our feet hidden and private. Anyone who has been asked to participate in a foot washing in church will usually say how uncomfortable they felt at having someone else touch and wash their feet, although it can also be quite healing, if we can get over the embarrassment. Someone gently tending our feet can make us more accepting of our need to receive as well as give and accepting of our imperfections.
In Jesus' time foot washing was normal. What was not normal was the host, or the guest of honour, doing the washing. Jesus took on the role of the most humble servant and left us an example for all time. If we are his followers we can never think we are above the most lowly acts of service to our family, friends, neighbours and even strangers.
Jesus went on to break the bread and share the wine with his disciples, creating the pattern of our Eucharistic celebration to this day. As he broke the bread and poured the wine Jesus told his disciples he was sharing with them his broken body and shed blood and told them to “Do this in Remembrance of me”. “For”, as we hear in Corinthians, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”
Maundy Thursday is the day we remember Christ's inauguration of our Eucharistic celebration.
This year we are in extraordinary times where we can no longer meet and share the bread and wine Sunday by Sunday or on any other day. On the last Sunday when were were able to share together in Communion (on March 15th) we were already restricted to sharing only the bread together. To avoid touching the communion rail we did not kneel, but stood to receive, almost as if we were already on the verge of departure. Now we are unable to share together in this Sacrament of togetherness, but in our hearts we can still pray the words and know Christ with us. Like people down the ages who have been cut off from sharing with their communities because of upheaval, catastrophe, imprisonment or persecution, we can still welcome Christ into our hearts, lift up our hearts to God and share with out fellow Christians a remembrance of Christ's actions. We can still have faith in Jesus' promises.
At the end of our Maundy Thursday service we usually hear the words of the Gospel story of Jesus going out into the garden of Gethsemane to pray and of his arrest; the beginning of the events of Good Friday. As we hear these words, the church is stripped of adornments, of linens and frontals, of candles and even the golden cross on the high altar. The church is stripped bare to its plainest form as we prepare for the bleakness of Good Friday and the sorrow of Easter Saturday. In the darkness, at the end of the reading, we depart in silence and, not stopping to greet fellow worshippers, we slip away home.
For us now, in these restricted times, we may feel that our life as Christians has been stripped back to its plainest form and the silence and solitude of the departure from Church on Maundy Thursday may feel like the norm rather than the exception. But when foundations are exposed it gives us the chance to check their solidity and we have the opportunity to examine our faith and rediscover the fundamentals of Christ's love that are at its heart.
The poignancy of Maundy Thursday is perhaps most acute this year and the sense of confusion, inadequacy and foreboding that gripped the disciples that night might take hold in our hearts and make us fearful.
But we are still the people of Christ, united in our baptism and in our faith. Christ does not abandon us because we cannot physically come together and share in the Eucharist. This year we have new opportunities to wash one another's feet as we find ways to support the vulnerable and manage the stresses of either being confined for long periods with other family members or being isolated and alone. For key workers and health workers, washing the feet of the nation at this time of crisis is a daily reality and we need to show our gratitude for their dedication and often sacrificial service.
If we are confined with our families, we may need to find fresh ways of being kind to each other, of bearing with each other, of sharing chores and burdens together, of serving each other in order to get us through these times.
If we are alone we can find ways to reach out to others by phone or other technologies or through prayer. We might especially reach out to some we are less fond of or find more challenging. They too are struggling at this time and we can offer a moment to lighten their darkness.
We may not be able to share physically in the bread and wine together, gathered round the altar, but we can still savour in our hearts the words of Christ and know his presence with us. Take a moment when you eat to remember the last supper and Christ's sharing of himself for us all.
We may be tempted to fall into the bleakness of the darkness and feel just the distress of the times, but Christ gave his disciples hope at the Last Supper. He gave them an example of service to others. He gave them a commemoration of himself which was to be an act of Remembrance for all time. “For as often as you break this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he come.” We look forward to the ultimate coming again of Christ, knowing he left us his hope and his promise.
May we all pray to see creative ways of sharing God's love at this time.
These are extraordinary and challenging times, but Jesus' promises live on and we can enrich our lives and our faith as we seek to find new ways to love and serve the Lord.
Jesus said ‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’
He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
A time of silence is kept.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.