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what does Jesus look like?: a reflection on maundy thursday and foot washing

April 16th, 2005 by isaac · 9 Comments

A few weeks ago I saw and touched a black person like never before. On Thursday of holy week my Mennonite church had a foot-washing service in the evening. My house hosted the communal meal, then we walked across the street to St. John’s Baptist Church for our service (we don’t have a church building so we depend on other’s hospitality). Our gracious hosts were invited to worship with us if they wanted. That evening a handful from this African American congregantion showed up for our service. After singing some songs and reading the Scripture for the evening, those who wanted to participate in the foot-washing took turns walking to the pew at the front of the church.

I sat down and waited for others to sit next to me so we could wash each others feet. My friend Doug sat to my right—he’s been coming to church that past few months. Then to my left sat deacon Buffalo, an older black man from the St. John’s congregation. I’ve had a few conversations with him when I see him around the neighborhood, but I really don’t know him that well. I feel terrible saying this, but I didn’t want him to wash my feet. It just didn’t feel right that this black man was to wash my feet. (Even though I know that I am Hispanic, I am aware that most people look at my skin and think I’m “white.” I didn’t want this man to wash a “white” man’s feet). Kneeling before me and washing my feet was such a humiliating position for him to take. When I saw him, part of what I saw was a history of forced subjugation, forced humiliation. This blessed practice of the church, this voluntary servanthood echoing Jesus’ kenosis, also sounded with echoes of another type of servanthood, one that Deacon Buffalo’s great-grandfather may have known quite well on this same land—that is, African slavery. Despite my historically-constructed way of seeing this black man that shouted in my head protesting the claim of this man to be my servant, I couldn’t resist. Despite all the resonance this practice had with the stories of forced servanthood, this holy space offered the possibility of a redeemed servanthood. This victim, in some sense my victim, could be to me that Other servant whose redemptive blood is on my hands. (see Sebastian Moore and/or Rowan Williams to learn more about the theological work behind this claim).

After this holy moment of communion with the divine that is still helping me understand how to consider our racially divided church, I remembered a passage from Rowan William’s book: “The finality of Jesus’ authority is simply this, that all must ultimately come to this light and this presence for their final place or destiny to be known” (On Christian Theology, p. 81). In other words, we learn what it means to be a human being when we find ways to abide in the presence of the One who is truly human. At that foot-washing Jesus came to me with brother Buffalo and taught me something new about what it means to be human—that is, how Christ can rejoin divided flesh through a breath of the Holy Spirit.

Tags: theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jumper // Jul 29, 2007 at 8:02 am

    I Have one question…Where do you find MAUNDAY THURSDAY in Scripture???

  • 2 isaac // Jul 29, 2007 at 8:55 am

    “Maundy” comes from the Middle English word for “command” (mande), which is from John 13:34: “A new command..” The Latin is mandatum. And “Thursday” is simply the day that marks the beginning of holy week—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter).

    Maundy Thursday is how the church has remembered the command of Jesus to love one another and serve one another, like he showed us by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13).

  • 3 jumper // Jul 29, 2007 at 9:36 am

    With all due respect, I didn’t ask where it came from. I asked Where do you find Maundy thursday in Scripture? And, Why do things that are not in Scripture???

  • 4 isaac // Jul 29, 2007 at 10:55 am

    I’m sorry if I was unclear in my response to your comment. Let me try again.

    The practice of foot-washing that Jesus commands in John 13 is remembered with a church service the day before Jesus’ crucifixion—and that means on Thursday. Since it’s there in Scripture, and since Jesus tells us to do it, we do it.

    ‘Maundy Thursday’ names the day that Jesus washed the disciples feet the day before the authorities crucified him. And the church throughout history has remembered that day and what Jesus did, and followed Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). So, we find the practice in Scripture, and we even find Jesus commanding us to participate in it.

    We do it on Thursday because that’s when Jesus did it—the day before he was crucified (Good Friday). Sure, we should probably do it more often. But if we celebrate Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, we should prepare for that day the way Jesus prepared us for it—with foot washing on Thursday.

    Now, about the word ‘Maundy.’ It’s a word from the Bible—John 13:34: “A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The Greek word we find in our New Testament for ‘command’ is entolen (but obviously that’s a transliteration, not the actual Greek word which we find in the text—I just don’t know how to write in Greek fonts on this blog). When the church spoke Latin, they had to translate the Greek into a language they could read. And the Latin word for ‘entolen is mandatum. So, the first two words of John 13:34 in Latin read: “Mandatum novum…” Do you hear how the first part of “manda-tum” sounds like “maundy”? Well, a while ago (in more recent history), when the church in England spoke and wrote in what we now call “Middle English,” they translated the Greek word entolen as something like “mande” (I guess it’s also similar to the Old French word as well). As you can see, the word “Maundy” is a cognate word from the Latin and Middle English and Old French translation of the Greek word “entolen.”

    Since this new “command” (i.e., maundy) to love one another like Jesus loves his disciples is given by Jesus after he washed his disciples feet, the church has come to see the practice of Jesus’ foot-washing as the concrete practice that shows how we love one another. And the church, desiring to obey Jesus, decided to practice foot-washing. And when Easter comes, they remember the specific day that Jesus washed feet by getting together and washing one another’s feet as Jesus commanded. And, literally, “maundy” is the command to do this.

    Does that make more sense?

  • 5 jumper // Jul 29, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Not really, I don’t see things quite that way. I believe Jesus kept the Passover,(what you call the Lord’s supper)on tues evening, died wed evening, was resurrected sabbath evening at sunset. 3 days & 3 nights exactly just as He said He would be… Matthew 12:40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

  • 6 isaac // Jul 30, 2007 at 3:47 am

    Ok, so is the problem which day (not Thursday, but Tues) the foot-washing service takes place? Or is it simply having a service for foot-washing?

  • 7 jumper // Jul 30, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    The Day

  • 8 Pastor Brenda // Mar 20, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    How beautiful to see our Lord in the eyes of one willingly serving you. Keep growing in HIm.

  • 9 Eric // Mar 31, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Indeed, Pastor Brenda. Thanks Jumper for your questions, and Thanks Isaac for your post and response. I am a Church of the Brethren minister and likewise believe in the crucial practice of foot-washing. We also believe in the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday morning. The Bible says that Jesus would be crucified, and on the THIRD day raise again. (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:21, Luke 9:22, 18:33, and many others) If we believe in the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, which we do, and that is the third day…working backwards Saturday (the Sabbath) is the second day, which makes the first day of his death…the day he died…on Friday. And we know that Jesus rose the day AFTER the Sabbath because when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body on Easter Morning, just after SUNRISE (Mark 16:1), not sunset, and was questioned by the guards why she didn’t do it the day before, she said she couldn’t because it was the Sabbath and all the stores were closed. So we believe that Jesus died Friday, one day after His last supper where He washed the disciples feet…on Thursday. So I agree with Isaac on the day. However, with all that being said, the day is petty stuff compared the real joy of knowing the love of Christ that brought us salvation through his death and eternal life through His resurrection. Regardless of the day it happened, it’s a gift that we have, and one that we need to convince others to accept before we run out of time. God bless all of you that endeavor to do just that!