Maundy Thursday: A Washed and Washing People
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
One of the main purposes of the Holy Week Triduum is to reveal to us, remind us, of the nature of the one we call Lord and strive to follow after. We remind ourselves who and how Jesus is, not so that we can acquire more information about him, but so that we can become more and more like him. The Christian life is a quite simply the movement into love, the accepting of our acceptance, putting on the mind of Christ that we might see with his eyes, hear with his ears, touch with his hands. The liturgy of Maundy Thursday is a powerful evocation of what love looks like when it comes into the world and who we, as God people gathered in this place, are called to be.
One of the interesting things about the Maundy Thursday liturgy is the way we have two liturgical acts set one against the other. On the one hand, we have the washing of the feet and celebration of the Eucharist. One other, we have the stripping of the altar and the procession of the Eucharistic bread and wine to the altar of repose. Think about that for a moment. The last thing we see before the stripping of the altar is washing and feeding. Then everything fades to black. Everything vanishes. The last earthly sign we have, liturgically speaking, before contemplating Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday and kindling of the New Fire at the Easter Vigil is this simple, human act of washing and feeding. Why?
In my mind, one of the great tragedies for the Church in the disputes about Eucharistic presence following Martin Luther’s unintended reformation was that in all the discussion over what happens to the bread and wine—how it happens, when it happens—the fundamental message of the last supper got lost. You see, Eucharist is not about what happens to the bread and wine, but what happens to us. “The point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ; it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness. We are supposed to become the bread of life for the world. We are supposed to become the healing oil.”
The point of liturgy is that we are to become what we celebrate. Liturgy is not a spectator sport, but an invitation into a process of transformation that makes us more and more like the one we follow, tripping and stumbling, down the way of love. Now it starts to make sense why the foot washing and the feeding might be the last thing we see before the world goes dark. In a certain way, those two acts show us most powerfully who and how God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is for us. Before the altar is stripped, the candles removed, the cross taken down, we have this last, precious glimpse of who Jesus is and we are called to be.
In those actions of washing the feet and feeding we are reminded of the mandate (where the word Maundy comes from) that we are to “Love one another.” In the past, Maundy Thursday has mistakenly been thought of the “Feast for Priests”—a reminder for those in holy orders of their core identity of servants of the servants of God. The priest, playing Jesus, would routinely wash the feet of the people to remind herself of what it means to be a priest. What’s wrong with that picture? Well, first of all, we proclaim the “priesthood of all believers”—yes there are deacons, priests, and bishops, but they are simply people who because of their particular gifts have been called to exercise ministry in the Church and set apart. Does that mean that everyone else is somehow off the hook when it comes to washing and feeding? Clearly not.
If we proclaim the priesthood of all believers, Maundy Thursday is not just a “Feast for Priests” but a Feast for All of Us to remind and recover our identity as a washed and washing people, as a fed and feeding people. That’s the basic message the liturgy is trying to drive home to us, all of us. That’s why this year we have representatives of the congregation from the Vestry, part of the spiritual leadership of the parish, who will have their feet washed and wash the feet of the congregants with the priests and the Bishop. That’s the truly reciprocal nature giving and receiving, receiving and giving that the liturgy is meant to instill in us.
God’s love, God’s washing, and God’s feeding comes first. God runs out to meet us while we are still far off. God in the Son journeys to the far country to consort with sinners, tax collectors and the ritually unclean in order to draw us back home. As Paul reminds he, “While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Take moment for that to sink in. God’s not sitting around for us to get our act together (as if we ever will) before he pours himself out for us. God loves us just we are and meets us in our need as water to wash and bread to feed.
Having our feet washed requires a little courage if you think about. Not a macho, bravado type of courage, but the courage to be vulnerable, the courage to be laid bare, to become like a little child. In one parish I served, it was common practice for everyone to go out and have a pedicure before the foot washing on Thursday evening. People would show up with these perfect toenails, and emery-boarded callouses—clouds of talcum powder would rise to the heavens like incense before the Lord when they took off their fresh pair of socks. But is that really what the liturgy is trying to show us? Isn’t the real point of the liturgy to know that even if we haven’t changed our socks in a weeks, God still loves us? Isn’t the real point of the liturgy that God’s love has nothing to do with condition of our feet?
Think about the people at the last supper who had their feet washed. There was Peter who would betray Jesus three times over the cozy fire in courtyard. James and John who could not keep watch and pray with him (and who likely fought over who would have their feet washed first and whose feet were cleanest afterwards). But there was also Judas. The one Jesus knows will betray him also has his feet washed. What an amazing sign for us of the humility of God. What an amazing reminder that our God is here, with us, a towel tied around his waist to wash us clean. What an amazing reminder that our God is always here, hand outstretched to feed us in our hunger. Our stinky feet, our callouses and bunions, aren’t a problem for God—in fact, they are the very place he meets us in order to transfigure them into the very vehicles for serving others.
It’s simply the case that we can’t serve others until we’ve let God serve us. Pedicures, in this context are a little bit like telling God we know how he should do his work. The Kingdom of Heaven in this scenario looks like a bunch of people who just stepped out of the Nail Salon. Really? Isn’t the true picture we get from this night something far more radical? Isn’t the picture we get this evening one that’s far more durable than nice nail polish and lavender scented foot cream? Isn’t the picture we get this night one that even before we’ve prettied ourselves up God is willing to give himself, all of himself, to us in order that we might know our rightful place at the banquet of divine love so that we might invite others to join us at the party?
Remember, in the post-resurrection appearances to the disciples Jesus doesn’t appear with pretty feet and hands. The wounds are still there, but they have been transfigured. God works with our pain, our lostness, our faults and foibles, our stinky feet, in order to bring about in and through us the revelation of his Glory, the revelation of his Love. It’s in yielding to love, in having the courage to be vulnerable, accepting our acceptance, that we come to participate in the healing and reconciling work that is God’s dream for the world.
That’s what it means to become what we celebrate. We experience ourselves to washed over by God’s love as revealed in the face of stranger who washes the place we’ve been hiding away from everyone for years and with that water and that towel utters a silent, “You are beloved. Just as you are. Welcome home.” And having experienced that homecoming, that overwhelming sense of God meeting where we are, we can’t help but leave this place as the very love we’ve just received. A washed and washing people. A fed and feeding people. As love serving love in love. The prodigal people of a Prodigal God who will stop at nothing to make sure everyone is brought within the reach of his saving embrace.