Thursday is a pivotal day in the Passion Week. If you’ve been following along, you know that in the past few days Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem triumphant on Sunday, cursed a fig tree and cleared the temple out on Monday, talked a great deal on Tuesday, and been stabbed in the back by Judas on Wednesday. (Get caught up and read a harmonized summary of Jesus’ movement during the Holy Week).
Thursday is called Maundy Thursday in some faith traditions. Growing up away from the mainline scene, I never understood what it meant. When I got out of the house and got all cultured, I realized a fascinating truth:
No one else knows what it means, either.
There are a couple possibilities.
One postulates that “Maundy” is from the Latin “mandatum,” which is taken from the first word of Jesus’ schpeel before he washes the disciples feet. That is, “A new commandment I give to you, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.'” (John 13:34) In this case, it comes from the same root word as our word “mandate.” In other words–Get to Work!
Another theory is that “Maundy” comes from the word used to refer to the baskets and bags used to give alms to the poor in old England. They were called “maundsor baskets” or “maundy purses.” As a verb, the word means “to beg.”
So is Maundy Thursday about us getting to work or is it about us begging? When we visit the events of this Thursday of Passion Week in the Gospels, it seems the answer is both.
First, there is this exchange between Jesus and Peter as Jesus prepares to wash the feet of the disciples:
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that vhe had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, xtied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not 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!” (John 13:2-9)
Jesus takes on the nature of a servant. He does what the Creator should never have to do–wash the stinky feet of his oblivious followers (one of whom should’ve been completing the task). When he gets to Peter, the poor guy is smart enough to understand the roles should be reversed, but a little aggressive in expressing it. He doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, he wants to take a bath!
If we can set aside that Peter should’ve been the one kneeling down in front of his friends, I love Peter’s response here. He realizes that he lacks something, and begs for Jesus to pour it on. He wants more. He wants it all. He is spiritually poor without Jesus, and he pleads with Jesus to make him right.
On Maundy Thursday, we’re reminded that we are beggars, and Jesus is the richest being in the universe.
But it’s not all about begging. John’s Gospel continues:
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)
Once Jesus shows his disciples what it’s like to be the least, he tells them to go and do likewise. Get to work! This kind of love is not evident in most churches today. It may not even be obvious in most families today. Love is a word we throw around with ease. But love like this is not lovey-dovey, XOXO kind of stuff. This is the kind of love that stays up late at night, teaches long days, walks all over the desert, and scoops water out of a basin onto our dirty feet.
This is the kind of love that, in approximately twelve hours, will be nailed to a cross.
And Jesus says we should love and serve each other in this way.
On Maundy Thursday, we’re reminded that we’ve got some work to do. Our work is to be like Jesus.