The Undoing of Death
Meditations for Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons
The term Maundy Thursday comes from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” In Latin, “new commandment” is mandatum novum. Maundy is a middle English version of mandatum used by the church in England many centuries ago. So Maundy Thursday is the day Jesus gave us a “new commandment” or a “mandatum novum.” This is one biblical account of what Jesus did that first Maundy Thursday…
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. (John 13.3-4)
I have been involved in several foot-washing ceremonies over the years. All of them were equally awkward yet oddly rewarding. In the Dominican Republic, where I served as a missionary, most Reformed churches would not imagine celebrating the Lord’s Supper without first washing one another’s feet. They read the gospel of John and see that in the same room on the same night as when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine of the first Supper, he washed his disciples’ feet. So, common sense dictates, they argue, that foot-washing is actually PART of celebrating Communion. In fact, the mandatum novum or new commandment to love one another as yourself is symbolized in the act of foot-washing just as the Lord’s Supper symbolizes God’s love for us
It is no mistake the gospel of John puts foot-washing together with the Lord’s Supper. Just like today, where you sit at a meal matters. Are you at the head table? Do you sit next to the host? Are you assigned to the ‘children’s table?’ Two disciples approached Jesus and wanted the places of honor, at his right and his left. Jesus responds by washing everyone’s feet. That is the awkward thing about foot-washing. When you are bent before someone, scrubbing their sweaty feet and then toweling them dry in your hands, you cannot feel superior to them. This is a sign, says Jesus about how we should treat one another. Life should not be game of King-of-the-hill.
That said, how we treat one another is the SECONDARY meaning of Jesus action of washing his disciples’ feet. The PRIMARY meaning is an interpretation of his death coming just 24 hours later. Jesus gets up from the table, puts on the loin cloth of a slave and kneels before his followers first and foremost to teach them about the meaning of death. Consider the image described by Fleming Rutledge, “the Son of God is stooping down from his heavenly throne to wash us clean of our transgressions.” The primary meaning is that the Lord of Creation undergoes awkward humiliation in order to purify us from sin. The primary meaning of Jesus foot-washing is the Word which was in the beginning with God, became flesh not only to be among us but also to love us and serve us to the utmost, even to death on the Cross… the greatest of all humiliations.