“Maundy Thursday” is the traditional name for this day of Holy Week in England. It is therefore the usual name also in English-speaking protestant churches that originated in England. The word Maundy is derived through Middle English and the old French word, mandé, from the Latin mandatum.
This is the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you).
This is from the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:34) in which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
John 13:1-7 NIV
As the meal preparations are coming to a head. It is time for a customary cleansing. It would have been customary to bathe before attending a feast. This is in part why the custom of foot washing existed. You would bathe in preparation for the feast and then walk to the place of the feast. Upon arriving at the feast you would be seated at the tables.
These tables would not be like those that we see portrayed in movies or in paintings.
You would sit in a nearly reclined position; your feet would be near the table and others. Therefore, the custom of washing your feet before the meal comes in place. The rest of your body was clean, but your feet would get dirty while traveling to the feast. This task of foot washing was a menial task and was relegated to the lowliest of the servants present at the meal.
Imagine yourself at this meal. You have already asked who is the greatest among you with no real answer. Yet you still want to know who will it be? You see the customary wash basin in the room. You begin to look around sizing up those that are around you. You may not discover who the greatest is, but tonight you will learn who is the least. There are no servants present, it is just the disciples and Jesus and no one has volunteered to perform the task. Who will be washing the feet? Who will it be? Surely not me! And then it happens. Jesus picks up the basin and the towels. No! Surely this cannot be. Jesus is not the least among us. He cannot be the one to wash my feet.
So much time has passed, but we are still looking for someone else to clean us up. We are willing to acknowledge that we are not clean, but we are reluctant to let Jesus be the one who will clean us up.
We want to be the one. Who will it be? We still live in a world that is reluctant to let Jesus be the one. And now as the meal concludes, Jesus tells us that this flock of followers will scatter (Matt 26:31).
We listen as Peter loudly declares that he will not leave (Matt 26:33). And isn’t that so much like us?
We come together and loudly proclaim in our places of worship that we will follow, but then morning comes.
As we rise from the table, I wonder, “Who will be left to follow?”
Who will choose to pray this night with Jesus in the garden?
Who will claim to be His follower as the crowd rises to shout crucify?
Who will be at the cross on Friday?
Who will it be?