Together with the sense of the Holy, the experience of Maundy Thursday affords us the most profound awareness of the role of change in our lives as well as the meaning of remembrance. Both are interwoven with the events of the saddest day of the church year. The arrest, stealthy court proceedings and torture of the Son of God in the middle of the night follow the heart-breaking hours of the Last Supper; the gathering of friends for a farewell meal is infused with sorrow because they know it will bring the end to a time of intense friendship and teaching, consistent fellowship and praxis. Certainly, the central character knows that this is the end of the teacher-student, master-follower communal living of the past three years; the others, seeing his sorrow at the imminent parting, must suspect it, even though they donât acknowledge it.
Jesus has been their friend but also their master -- in the manner people of that time knew well: a friendship that was based on a complementary, not a symmetrical relationship; they knew they were not the equal of their remarkable rabbi. Theirs was a daily fellowship that demanded loyalty and obedience from them because it was based on love abundantly given by the master to the disciples. The twelve, and the rest of the followers of Jesus, had heard him speak words of Truth and Justice to them and to the crowds; they had seen him heal the sick time and time again; they had felt power emanating from him; three of them had seen him glorified in a mystical mountain epiphany, but now, suddenly, they are seeing him in the role of the servant. It is not a comfortable experience for them. He dons a towel and starts washing their feet. This was much different from the ritual washing we see in some churches on Maundy Thursday. Theirs were dirty feet indeed. They had walked many miles, they had been bare or in sandals, on unpaved terrain, on dusty roads that had hardened their soles and imbedded the dirt for all time in the cracks.
The courteous thing for a host to do was to wash the feet of the guests -- or, more likely, to have a servant perform this act of ritual honor and necessity. Jesus is their host but now also their servant. He doesnât ask one of them to do the washing; he does it himself. The disciples must be stunned, but only Peter protests. Peter thinks he knows his place and wants Jesus to know his own place also. But Jesus is not playing by the rules. He never has; Peter ought to have remembered, but he doesnât. Peter is frightened. Everything is changing and he doesnât like change. Later, in the night, he will be so terrified of his masterâs different role that he will deny his dearest friend. But right now he shows his usual blustery independence: âI will not allow you to wash my feet.â Jesus, who is being very tender to all of them throughout the meal, puts Peter quickly in the new place he has in mind for him -- that of the obedient, strong follower who knows how to be a servant also. âYou better let me do it, Peter, or you will not be with me -- you will have no share with me.â In other words: Learn to accept and understand the change, Peter. From now on our relationship is different; I am showing you something profound, much more than just the act of kneeling before you to wash your feet. I am showing you that the share I want you to have in me will make you become like me.
It is this change in their relationship to their friend and master that the disciples will remember later, and in the remembrance they will find meaning and understanding. Enough to change the world.
They have been followers and friends, they have been students and companions to the man who called these fishermen by the seashore promising them that he would make them âfishers of human beings.â In those heady days when Jesus attracted the thousands with his signs of the Kingdom and with words of authority, they basked in the popularity of their master and felt some of his power rub off on them. They were filled with pride. They were the chosen. But tonight, on this unforgettable Thursday night, their roles are changing drastically, and they are afraid. The change comes with sorrow, but also with great tenderness, and with an example of servanthood. âHaving loved his own, he loved them to the end.â Is there a more loving sentence in all of literature? It is this deep love, this agapÄ that is preparing them for the change.
They are warned that when his arrest and death come, they too will be in danger and be despised. Jesus himself knows that soon he will enter into the most agonizing hours of humiliation and abandonment. But first, he must give hope and strength to his friends. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. He is pouring this love out to them by giving them his new commandment: âJust as I have loved you, you should also love one another.â
The hours pass. The agony of the garden follows, then the humiliation of the court procedures, the torture of his body, the danger that sends most of his friends scurrying away. The disciples forget his words, forget the years of joy in the concern of saving themselves. Peter denies him. They are facing the end of hope.
Later, they will remember: they will recall this last meal together, his tenderness, the washing of their feet . One imagines that throughout the remainder of their lives, every time they enter a home to have their feet washed, they will remember this night and their Lord kneeling in front of their feet and the memory will be nearly unbearable. Above all, they will remember that he loved them and that he went willingly to the cross because of his great love for them and for the truth of his Father.
They will remember and they will understand the meaning of his words and of his acts. And they will share this remembrance with the rest of us. This is why we are gathered here tonight: in partaking of this meal, we too will remember.