Maundy Thursday, April 6, 2023
The Thursday in Holy Week is Maundy Thursday. It is part of the Triduum, or three holy days before Easter. It comes from the Latin mandatum novum, “new commandment,” from Jn 13:34. The ceremony of washing feet was also referred to as “the Maundy.”
Maundy Thursday celebrations also commemorate the institution of the eucharist by Jesus “on the night he was betrayed.” Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem, describes elaborate celebrations and observances in that city on Maundy Thursday. Special celebration of the institution of the eucharist on Maundy Thursday is attested by the Council of Hippo in 381. The Prayer Book liturgy for Maundy Thursday provides for celebration of the eucharist and a ceremony of the washing of feet, which follows the gospel and homily. Following this, the altar is stripped and all decorative furnishings are removed from the church.
The washing of feet was a menial act of hospitality in the Old Testament (see Gn 18:4, 19:2). It was often performed for guests by a servant or the wife of the host. The Gospel of John (13:1-17) records that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus urged the disciples to follow his example of generous and humble service. They should wash one another's feet, as their feet had been washed by Jesus, their Lord and Teacher. Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was a lived expression of his teaching that "whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mk 10:43-44). The foot-washing also expressed Jesus' "new commandment" for his disciples to love one another, as he had loved them (Jn 13:34).
The washing of feet continued in the early Christian church. The requirements for enrollment on the list of widows includes the expectation that a widow would have "washed the saints' feet" (1 Tm 4:9-10). The ceremonial washing of feet is mentioned by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The foot-washing has been associated with the Maundy Thursday liturgy since the seventh century in Spain. The name "Maundy" is from the Latin antiphon that was used on this day, based on Jesus' "new commandment" of love on the Thursday before his death. The foot-washing has also been associated with baptism. In the ancient Gallican rites, the feet of the newly baptized were washed by the ranking prelate after baptism.
The early editions of the Prayer Book did not provide for the foot-washing. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer restored the washing of feet as an option for the Maundy Thursday service. The foot-washing follows the gospel and homily. Representatives of the congregation may be appointed to have their feet washed by the celebrant. The celebrant may be assisted by other ministers or acolytes. The BCP provides anthems that may be sung or said during the ceremony (pp. 274-275). Musical settings for these anthems are available in the Appendix of The Hymnal 1982 Accompaniment Edition, Vol. 1 (S 344-S 347). It is also traditional to use the hymn "Ubi Caritas" at the foot-washing (see Hymns 576, 577, 581, 606). The Book of Occasional Services provides a brief address that may be used by the celebrant to introduce the ceremony of foot-washing. This statement recalls Jesus' teaching that "strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God come not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service" as the washing of feet.
The word, “agape,” is the Greek word used in the New Testament for the highest and broadest kind of self-giving Love, the kind of Love that is our source, our true life in this life and our eternal reality. We have no word capable of describing the God who is Love in any language, but agape calls attention to the limitless and overflowing fullness of Divine Love—Love Incarnate, who suffered death on a cross.
An Agape Meal, or “Love Feast” as it is also called, is an ancient tradition of table fellowship. The practice of holy hospitality precedes the Church, going back to the hospitality Abraham showed to his three unknown visitors (Genesis 18). In the early Church, agape meals were a time of fellowship for “People of the Way,” as the early Christians were called.
An Agape Meal is a ritual meal that does not require an ordained person and yet acknowledges our koinonia, which in Greek refers to the fellowship of Christ’s Body. Such meals seek to strengthen communal bonds and foster a spirit of harmony, goodwill and congeniality. They usually include an opportunity to acknowledge our need for forgiveness, especially if some sort of reconciliation among members of the community is warranted. The meal is another way of living out Jesus’ mandatum (as in Maundy Thursday) or commandment that we love one another with the same self-emptying love, mercy and forgiveness with which he has loved and still loves us.