This Is My Body
Different faith communities have different ways of observing Maundy Thursday — the Thursday of Holy Week. And the Book of Common Prayer’s special liturgy for Maundy Thursday gives us two choices for today’s gospel reading — one from John and one from Luke.
We chose John’s gospel, which is the only one of the four gospels that tells the story of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet, emphasizing humble service to each other. John’s gospel is where the custom of foot washing on Maundy Thursday comes from. The other three gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — focus on the Last Supper, where Jesus gives us the familiar words of institution at the eucharist:
He took the bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying “Take, eat, this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”It is the Last Supper from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that is the basis of our eucharist, which we celebrate to remember that we’re all part of Christ’s body.
Do This in Remembrance of Me
And it is the do this in remembrance of me language from the Last Supper in Luke’s gospel that gives us the name of this day — Maundy Thursday — in the church year. Maundy is a shortened form of the Latin word mandatum, which means command. Think of the related English word mandate. You can also hear the root in the middle of the word commandment. Maundy Thursday is the day that Jesus mandated that we continue to celebrate the eucharist together in remembrance of him.
Many faith communities remember the foot-washing from John’s gospel on Maundy Thursday as an important part of their Maundy Thursday observance. These communities wash each other’s feet in memory of Jesus’ profound act of humility and service. Many of you have seen the olive wood carving I have on my desk of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, a gift from Archibishop Suheil and Bishop Hosam when I returned from Jerusalem for my ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Hosam keeps a carving like this on his own desk, reminding us that ordained leadership is all about humble service.
Other faith communities emphasize the mandate to celebrate the eucharist on Maundy Thursday, focusing on Luke’s gospel and stripping the altar afterward, simplifying our worship space as we pray with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he waits for his betrayal, arrest, and trial.
In prior years, Emmanuel’s tradition has emphasized the foot-washing in John’s gospel that we read tonight, as well as the stripping of the altar.
And like many other things during COVIDtide, we now have some space to remind ourselves of the practices that have nurtured our faith, while we also do something new. As we remember our past, and pray toward our future, we may find new insights into God’s call to us.
The risk of COVID transmission makes washing each other’s feet unsafe, but we can remember the important faith tradition of humble service in foot-washing from John’s gospel as well as the mandate to share bread and wine in communion from Luke’s gospel.
While we cannot wash each other’s hands as we prepare to celebrate holy eucharist, we can each wash our own hands in humble service to each other as Christ’s body.
As I wash my hands before presiding at Holy Eucharist tonight, maybe you’d like to wash your hands too, with a bowl of warm water, simple soap, and a clean towel, just like I’ll do here.
If you need to get up and use the sink in another room, remember we wash for 20 seconds for virus safety — long enough to sing the Doxology — so just come back when you’ve rinsed and dried.
We take, bless, break, and share the bread, and — we pray one day soon, the wine — in service to Christ’s body. Amen