The Gospel for Maundy Thursday is set within a context that, from the off, isn’t quite what the disciples might have anticipated. They were gathered around the supper table, and rather than what may have been their customary practice, listening to Jesus teaching and exploring ideas, they find themselves being taught in a very different way. By this stage in their time with Jesus they knew whohe was and they had learned to trust him. They call him teacher and Lord – they’re actively looking to him for instruction and leadership, and that is what he gives them, but not in the way that they had expected. He takes off his robe and ties a towel around himself and then he kneels at their feet and washes them. It’s an act of service and humility, a teaching opportunity rooted in action rather than words; leadership by example. It’s an act that would normally be replicated by the clergy team within our Cathedral this evening. But, as we know, these are not normal times.
Some years ago, I was on the team in a church that had adopted a practice of Maundy Thursday hand washing for every member of the congregation.
Several wash stations were set up around the church and each person washed the hands of someone else. It was a gesture of care and respect. People would take the soap and gently lather up the hands of another person. They would take the time to massage the palms and to make sure that each of the fingers had been washed. Each person took at least the now mandatory 20 seconds to attend to the hands in front of them before they were carefully dried and reverenced. Recent weeks have brought those scenes to mind as I’ve watched clips of people carefully and thoughtfully, almost prayerfully, washing their own hands.
Spending time touching the skin of someone with whom you are not normally intimate is an unusual thing to do. We greet people with a hand shake or an air kiss (at least when we’re allowed to do so) and those are usually mutual and quite fleeting acts. Quite different from an intentional focus on the skin of another, giving attention to the hands of someone we don’t know well. Honouring their physical self as a way of showing them respect and honour.
We are being reminded on a daily basis that our hands are potentially the transmitters of infection into our bodies. Our hands become dirty very quickly, whether or not we can see that dirt. And in a dusty first century Palestine, that would also be true for feet.
Jesus knelt at the feet of the disciples, that part of them that was most in need of physical cleansing – and he modelled what it means to show love and care and respect. There is, of course, a sub text here. In showing what it means to offer hands-on cleansing, Jesus was pointing towards what it means to be offered spiritual cleansing. In the same way that our hands and our feet are impossible to keep clean for any length of time, so it is impossible for us to keep our spiritual selves free from that which taints and marks us. Our
Our whole selves need care and attention. This evening’s reading is pushing us to be aware of ourselves as both physical and spiritual beings. On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of this Lenten season we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Here, at the pivotal moment in Holy Week, we are being reminded that we are flesh and blood. That our skin collects dust and responds to touch. That our spiritual selves are housed within our corporal selves.
And on this night, at this service, we are particularly reminded that Jesus was also flesh and blood. He was fully human and also had dusty feet and hands that needed to be cared for and could offer care. On this night, at this service, we also remind ourselves of the events that took place at what we call the Last Supper, the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus shares bread with his disciples and says: this is my body.
In normal times, we would be inside the Cathedral at this point, and in a few minutes we would hear the priest speak those words and hold up the sacramental bread on our behalf as we bless and break and share. The priest, having touched flesh in the washing of feet, now touches a different kind of flesh – the body of Jesus Christ which was given for each one of us.
This evening, we’re doing that a bit differently. The priest will be in the Cathedral and we will be in our homes. The bread will be held by each of us, the body touched by each of us. We will bless and break and share. We may not be physically together, but we are joined as the Body of Christ in this act of worship. We have collectively become something that is more than the sum of its parts; something that allows us to make that connection between the physical and the spiritual between the tangible and the sacramental.
As we hold the bread which mirrors the sacramental bread in our Cathedral, let’s remind ourselves that it’s through our physical selves that we are able to engage with our spiritual selves. In our hands, those hands that have demanded our attention over recent weeks we hold something absolutely ordinary that reminds us of something that is not ordinary, something that we set aside and make holy.
We are not able to gather together this evening, we’re not able to receive the Sacrament, we’re not able to wash feet or hands within our worshipping community.
But we are able to gather in prayer. We can’t touch the flesh of those with whom we pray, but we can touch our own flesh, regard our own hands, and take care of those hands. And at this time, we know that the best thing we can do for our sisters and brothers is to take care of our own hands – to continue to wash them in that respectful and prayerful way. As we wash our hands – yet again – let’s try to remind ourselves that this is one way to serve our sisters and brothers. This is the way of Jesus, to be like those who serve.
This is not the Maundy Thursday that we had anticipated but it’s the one we find ourselves living. In the midst of this unexpected situation Jesus models a way of responding that honours him and us and those we call our neighbours.