1Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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. … 12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. … 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:1-4, 12-15, 34-35, NRSV)
Many Christian denominations, including Lutherans, commemorate these events on the Thursday before Easter. During Maundy Thursday, the name given to this Holy day, we remember the lessons in humility and love for one another, as well as the institution of Holy Communion on the night in which our Lord was betrayed and arrested. The name of the day comes from the Latin word mandatum, which translates to “commandment.”
The Lesson in Humility
Gathered together in what is known as the Upper Room, our Lord Jesus, took a towel and basin of water and washed the feet of his disciples. This was usually done by a servant of the host. Foot washing was an ancient custom in many ancient civilizations including the early Israelites (Genesis 18:4, 24:32, 1 Samuel 25:41, among others) As I am sure you can imagine, the disciples’ feet were probably very, very dirty. They walked everywhere they went either barefoot or in simple sandals, but even those who wore shoes could expect the host to provide water, a towel and a slave to wash his guests’ feet. But Jesus turned this tradition on its head. Instead of expecting his feet, the feet of the guest of honor, to be washed, he took on the role of servant and said “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.”
The New Commandment
“And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Remember that song? It was a camp favorite for decades and was recently re-recorded by Jars of Clay. The catchy tune, written by then Catholic priest Peter Scholtes in 1966, is based on the new Commandment given during the Last Supper: “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.”
The Institution of Holy Communion
Our Lord took bread, gave thanks, and broke it and gave it to the disciples saying “Take and eat. This is my Body broken for you. Likewise, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to all to drink. Do this in remembrance of me.” Holy Communion, instituted during the Last Supper, is the most personal act of piety. Through this sacrament, we share in the body and blood of him who gave himself for us and our sins. For Lutherans, the true body and blood of Jesus are present in the Supper “in, through and under” the earthly elements of bread and wine. According to Luther, the Lord’s Supper is a “comfort for terrified consciences” because it has been commanded by Christ and conveys God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins and our ultimate salvation. We are fed and become one with Christ when we come to the Lord’s Table. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat. So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:51-56).
Lutherans commemorate Maundy Thursday in a variety of ways. Some prepare a Seder meal, others a Passover meal, some reenact the events in the Upper Room including foot washing, most focus on the Eucharist. However your local congregation commemorates Maundy Thursday, I encourage you to participate and experience the tension and promise of this Holy Night. If you do not have a congregation, I encourage you to find a local church in order that you, too, may experience the events in the Upper Room, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday.
In Christ’s Name,