Every Maundy Thursday, Catholics who make it a point to go to the evening Mass celebrating the Supper of the Lord witness and participate in something that speaks volumes far beyond the action that is being carried out in front of their eyes. They witness the priest washing the feet of twelve men, usually seated in the sacred space of the sanctuary.
What is going on here? Father’s foot reflexology? Priestly pedicure? Anyone not having a clue about our Church’s tradition and seeing this for the first time would be excused for thinking thus. In actual fact, a sacred action is taking place, and it draws and invites a similar action on our part. We are not to be mere viewers or spectators. We are actually being instructed by example.
The “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin mandatum, a noun meaning law, or command. This is the root word of the English “mandate” or “mandatory”. Jesus gives the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. And we must love one another in this way. On that night of the Lord’s Supper, he began by doing something that was hitherto unseen and unthought of – the master washing the disciples’ feet.
There is something that the Celebrant does before the foot washing at that Mass that one can miss if one don’t pay enough attention. In front of the entire congregation, the priest removes his chasuble, and places it on the Altar. It’s the only time in the entire liturgical year that this action is done, and the significance is deep and rather compelling. It is not just for mere practical reasons. Certainly, bending low wearing a flowing garment of sometimes heavy damask fabric to wash 12 men’s feet makes it just practical to remove as much as one’s outer garments as possible. But its significance goes much deeper.
We are told that on that night of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus removed his outer garment first. When the priest does this, he does this in imitation of Christ. One notices the purposeful removal of one’s office, one’s outer accoutrements that signify rank or office, to do this very important task. Theologically, there is something similar going on in the mystery of the incarnation. The incarnation is a mystery that has such deep and profound significance. One of the ways in which we can appreciate it is to refer to 2 Corinthians 8:9 where we are told that Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for our sake, became poor, so that you in your poverty could become rich. Heretics have made the mistake to say that Jesus stripped himself of his divinity. He did not. Jesus never did that. But there was a significant, deliberate and willingness to take on humanity on his part. On that night, at the upper room, the disciples experienced what this meant in the humble act of foot washing. Here we have a deliberate willingness to put aside position, status and any sense of superiority because the kingdom of heaven has a preference for the lowly and the meek. Furthermore, love, as St Thomas would put it some 1500 years later, is defined as willing the good of the other for the other.
Apart from the deliberate removal of status and position in a relationship to convey love, this action also demonstrates the relinquishing of the deep-seated need to be right. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to any relationship is the need to be right. We only need to honestly reflect on our own lives to see that oftentimes, relationships and friendships have come asunder because we insisted stubbornly on the need to be right. I recall having a retreat master telling us many years ago when we were in formation as seminarians, that one of the clearest signs of spiritual immaturity is to use the phrase “I told you so”. There is great truth in this. Whenever we use this phrase in our disagreements, isn’t our main purpose to thrust our superiority in the face of the other, ultimately to show them not just how wrong they are, but how right we are?
In dispensing with rank and superiority, position and power, the act of foot washing becomes a lesson in dispensing with rightness in every way whatsoever. The fact that Jesus emphasizes to the remonstrative Peter that this is something that he needs to be receiving shows that there is a residual effect in it. It is later that Peter knew that by his very life of complete surrender was he carrying on the act of foot washing for the Church. Notice though, that Judas also had his feet washed by the Lord, and his response was something that was totally different, because he went on to betray the Lord despite the foot washing. The main difference is that Peter repented of his denial of the Lord, whilst Judas did not. The offer of grace is totally gratuitous, and our response is one that is also totally free. The responses of Peter and Judas being so completely different supports the teaching that the response to grace is never one that is forced and strips one of freedom.
I wonder how many minds bother to think so far whenever this scene is enacted out in front of them at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. If only every person who walks out of that Mass becomes so positively transformed to be a fellow foot-washer. Spouses will love and serve with a new willingness; parents and children will love at a new level; work places will be less political and self-centered; the ego will slowly move from the centre to the fringe where less damage will be caused; life will be more fully respected and life will not just be lived.
It will be celebrated.