Do you understand what I have done for you?: Maundy Thursday

washingfeet3The word “maunday” comes from a verse version of the Latin “mandatum” command. It refers to Jesus’ command “you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14).

Interestingly, the church has never received this “command” in the ritualistic sense. Although there were a few Christian sects that practice the rite literally, the church has received this commandment only as an imitation of the spirit of this rite. In fact, the ritual of the washing of the feet  is not mandatory, not even on Maundy Thursday. All the more for us to strive to understand the spirit of this gesture. The poignant question of Jesus to his disciples is still a good question today: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (Jn 13:12)  Do we?

 In Jesus’ time, the washing of feet was a custom that was not required from anyone, not even slaves, although “occasionally, disciples would render this service to their teacher or rabbi” (Raymond E. Brown).

It is not surprising that Peter refuses this apparent reversal of preposition. Peter, or other disciples, should wash Jesus’ feet. However, Jesus was very clear. He does not mean that the disciples have become suddenly masters: “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.” (Jn 13:13).

Jesus had intended something very different: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you. No slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (Jn 13:14-16)

In other words, although the distinction between master and disciples is real, the relationship becomes one of equality. If the master dares to treat the disciples like masters, all the more, the disciples should treat each other like masters. Although we are all different, when it comes to service, we become all equal. Servants have, in a way, received the dignity of masters without being masters. Dignity refers to something’s goodness on account of itself (Aquinas). The disciples have received something good, a master’s treatment from the master. They now become equal in dignity.

Love, unlike washing feet, cannot be commanded (Deus caritas 18). God does not force us to produce an emotion towards our neighbors. It does not work like that. Often, we forget this, and change the commandment of love into a pretense of love: “I do not really love him, but I will act as if I did.” We pretend to love only because we are told. Like Peter, we accept the commandment without understanding: “not only my feet, but also my hands and my head as well.”

Love cannot be understood unless it is experienced. It cannot be produced unless it is received. Only the disciples that received the master’s treatment by the master can give the master’s treatment to others. Washing each other’s feet entails removing our clothing of pretenses of superiority, acknowledging the equal dignity of the other person, and treating them consistently.

In this way, love does not become a product of our strength but a natural reaction to the goodness we just discovered in the other person. At times, we may not like them. We may even have good reasons to hate them, but still Jesus washed their feet with our feet. Jesus saw in them something we must discover, and when we do… we realized what Jesus had done, we understand and we are empowered to love as Jesus loves.

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