Updated: Apr 13, 2020
by The Very Rev. Dr. Gloria Lita D. Mapangdol
April 9, 2020
After the joyous shouts of hosannas on Palm Sunday, the mood suddenly changes today, Maundy Thursday. Today is the beginning of what we call the Sacred Triduum, or the Three Days, referring to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Easter Vigil.
Last Sunday, also known as the Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem, fully aware of the dangers he had to face. Entering Jerusalem was costly. It would cost him his life, because the way of God turned out to be the way of the Cross, not power and riches. There is then the sudden shift from rejoicing with palm branches and songs of praises to this grim reality that Jesus will soon die in the hands of those who follow the other way, the way of power and evil or the way of the empire at that time. Some of us may still ask, “If Jesus knew beforehand the danger that he was to face in Jerusalem, why would he still go there?”
Bishop Pablo David has a powerful reflection on this. He says that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he rode on a donkey instead of a war horse. He presented himself not as a warrior who would fight against the evil powers of his time. Instead, Jesus presented himself as a man of peace, someone who was aware of the suffering of his people, and someone who was aware of the dangers he was about to face, but was determined to face this head on. Turning back would not only be a sign of cowardice, but also of letting the perpetrators have their way. Therefore, Jesus’ commitment to obey God and follow his way, even to the cross, was not a sign of defeat, but of victory over the evils of his time.
Last Sunday’s message continues this evening. By the way, why is today called Maundy Thursday? Sabi sa Pinoy joke, “Today is the only time of the year when Monday and Thursday come together.” Seriously, it pays to know in order to understand the significance of our service this evening.
Maundy is a term that comes from the Latin word “mandatum” or “command” in English. Hence, literally, today is Command Thursday. But what is the command? This is what we will explore in the gospel of John. Readings from the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke will talk about the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. John’s gospel is a little different. John’s gospel talks about Jesus and his disciples having a meal, not necessarily called the Last Supper but resembling it, and then during the meal, Jesus suddenly knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet. The footwashing is only found in John’s gospel.
For unknown reasons, the footwashing has vanished in many traditions. I understand that because of this pandemic, not many of us will be doing it this year or this evening, but in the Episcopal Church, this has always been an important part of our Maundy Thursday service.
During the time of Jesus, washing of the feet was a common task of a servant or a slave in the house. If it was done as part of hospitality to one’s guests, the servants of the house did the washing. It was unheard of that a master would wash the feet of his slaves or that one with superior status would wash the feet of one who was inferior. This explains the astonishment of Peter and the disciples when Jesus removed his robe, donned a towel, and knelt down to wash their feet (verses 4-5). Everything pointed to a role reversal, a master becoming a slave. Some would refer to this as status transformation (Neyrey). Jesus, the Master, the son of God, did the task of a slave for his disciples instead of the other way around. It is much more than just an act of humility, but one of servanthood. In fact, it is not even equivalent to the servanthood we commonly know, because laying down his royal robe could also refer to Jesus’ laying down his life for his friends (O’Day). We will see this unfold in the next events.
Perhaps this was why Peter in the following verses (6-9) refused to have his feet washed. Aware of the social and political implications of this act, it could not be possible that Jesus would be the one washing his feet. Peter, like any of his disciples, misunderstood the significance of the footwashing. A scholar named Sandra Schneiders is very brave to say that it was not so much a misunderstanding on the part of Peter, but it was because Peter himself was against the abolition of all ranks, as indicated by the action. I know that some of us would not like to explore Schneider’s idea because it seemingly puts Peter in a bad light, but doesn’t he represent us all? The worse is still to come when he will deny Jesus three times. In fact, if we continue with the gospel, Peter only agreed to be washed by Jesus (v. 9) when Jesus told them they will not have a share in his kingdom if they will not be washed. Peter then suggested that Jesus includes his hands and head, another misunderstanding on his part.
Jesus’ humble act probably taught the disciples that their closeness with Jesus and their being considered part of the 12 should not be seen as a privilege to show authority and power over the others, but a privilege to walk the way of the servant Messiah. And rightly so, after he washed their feet, Jesus told them in vv. 14 & 15 to go and do likewise. This is an important aspect of the overarching mandatum in John 13:34 where Jesus says: Love one another just as I have loved you! In the same manner, serve one another as I have served you. And do everything I did to others also. It was the mandatum for Jesus’ disciples at that time and it is also a mandatum for all of us today.
This is why I like the unique way we do the footwashing in our church. We make sure that all of the members of the body are represented in the feetwashing. This is but right, as the Lord’s command to love by loving and serving others is not just for a few, not only for the men, but for all the members of his Church. Jesus challenges us to take on the responsibility to continue his work here on earth. Bruegemann has an interesting reminder for us. He says that the space between you and others is filled with a towel, a symbol of servanthood in the footwashing.
The message is timely as we are now faced with this pandemic which is not just affecting the poor, but also the rich and powerful. The footwashing that we have just heard from the gospel is a genuine expression of solidarity in service (Zorilla). If we are to listen to the mandatum given to us by Jesus in John, how are we faring so far? Have we bothered to check our neighbors during this time of lockdown or enhanced community quarantine? Have we prayed for the frontliners, who are strangers to us and who did not really matter to us, the janitors, the market vendors, etc.? Have we prayed for the victims and their families? Or have we literally shut our doors, even the doors of our hearts? It is encouraging that despite the slow response of governments to this pandemic, we also hear simple acts of kindness from strangers, both rich and poor, becoming good Samaritans to those in need. These examples challenge our obedience to Christ’s mandatum and at the same time give us hope that others are indeed committed to obeying it.
You must have come across a meme posted on facebook by a church (originally from Little Flower Catholic Parish?) referring to the suspension of church services due to precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The meme states: “The Church isn’t empty. The Church has been deployed.” This is true. At these trying times, we are all deployed. The enhanced community quarantine should not paralyze us to do something to respond to the mandatum, while also observing quarantine measures. As one author (Lisa Stephenson) puts it, “Let us get our feet wet!”
Let us forget whatever status, whatever rank, whatever attainment we have and help. If there is something to flatten among us, it should be the gap between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, symbolized by Jesus’ act of stooping down in loving service, to make life bearable for everyone in this time of crisis. And certainly, there should be a difference between the disciples of Christ following his mandatum and those who don’t.
It is not too late to repent of our inaction, of our indifference, of our passivity, and of our lack of commitment to Christ’s mandatum. At the end of the Holy Week, and at the end of this pandemic, it would be good to ask ourselves this question: How has this experience transformed and changed us? If nothing changes after all these, we need to seriously think about our kind of discipleship and our commitment to Jesus’ mandatum.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.