There are two different rituals associated with Maundy Thursday in the Christian tradition. One is foot washing, which commemorates the narrative in John 13. The other is the eucharist or holy communion or the Lord’s supper, which privileges the plot of the synoptics (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23). Normally, we would participate in some version of one or both of these together, in person, at church, tonight. This year, as everyone knows, things are far from normal.
Maybe that isn’t all bad. Because when things are not normal, they prompt us to think, more, and perhaps differently. We might learn something that way.
What mattered, essentially, in Jesus’s act of foot washing?
We don’t get our feet washed, these days, much. Unless, maybe, when people go to Pretty Nails and get mani-pedis, the nail technicians do it, which would make sense. Or, perhaps, in a hospital or nursing home. But it’s not an every day occurrence.
In the ancient world, on the other hand, so we are told every year, it was an every day occurrence. It was part of routine maintenance, the way washing our hair and brushing our teeth is part of routine maintenance for us. People walked around all day in sandals on dirt roads. Their feet got really dirty.
That made washing feet the kind of indispensable but invisible, recurrent, life-supporting task that ordinary people would do for themselves, and people with some means and status would get someone else to do for them. Because let’s face it, your feet will probably get a lot cleaner if someone else washes them for you.
Young-enough children, presumably, would have had to have someone else do it for them. Like Mom. One of the ironies of having “people” who “wait on you hand and foot” is that in some ways you resemble an infant.
Maybe someone would wash your feet if they were being especially sweet, too. “Here now, Baby, let me do that …”
We often focus exclusively on the status dimension when we think about Jesus’s object lesson of washing his disciples’ feet. “Jesus came to serve, not to be served.” “Jesus put his friends above himself.” “Jesus took on the role of a slave.”
To all of which, yes, no doubt.
But it’s probably a mistake to let that obscure the extent to which washing the disciples’ feet was something they could not do just as well or just as easily for themselves. The extent to which it actually was something they needed, that actually contributed to their well-being.
And the extent to which it made visible something ordinarily invisible, something caring, and thus plainly lovely. The extent to which it was simply loving.
And it’s probably a mistake to think the point of this ritual is its symbolic significance, instead of its practical significance.
It’s probably a mistake to forget that the main thing is to make a practice of doing, substantively, concretely, for real, those indispensable but often invisible, often recurrent, often life-supporting, often ordinary, actually caring tasks that signify love for people because they actually contribute to their well-being.
We can’t re-enact that ritual of foot-washing this year on Maundy Thursday. But we still have plenty of opportunities to, practically speaking, wash one another’s feet. And we always will.
The PC(USA) has issued a special advisory opinion on communion in an emergency or pandemic – that is, it’s general advice, but it covers “these times.”
In brief, the advice is this: the celebration of communion, in practice, ought to reflect our understanding of what it means to be in communion with Christ, and through Christ the Triune God and the communion of saints. That is, it ought to be something we do together as the church, not individually; publicly, not privately; incarnationally, in body as well as in spirit.
Communion is also a means of grace and an expression of pastoral care.
A lot of people need both of those right now. Now, not later. Now, not whenever we are on the other side of “this” and can get back together in person.
What is the weightiest matter of the law?
Everyone knows that. Love.
And it also part of our theology that
… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
So we’ll get back to being staunchly Presbyterian and exactingly decent and in order later. For now, we will let all kinds of dispersed tables be one table and all kinds of disparate loaves be one loaf and all kinds of liquid be the cup of salvation and gather all that up into Christ online without gathering in person, and acknowledge that these days that is the closest we can get to one another in body so that will have to be embodied and gathered enough.
It will still be a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
And I think, if we have the right Christology, we can still count on there being real presence, too.