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Maundy Thursday SERVICE?

This year at The Falls Church Episcopal, for Maundy Thursday (April 2), we're trying something different.  

The custom I've nearly always done, and is still done in many churches – one I don’t like, for reasons I explain a bit below -- is a ritual foot-washing, where clergy wash each other’s feet, then the feet of others, then others are invited to wash each other’s feet. 

The symbolism is fine – in a scene found only in the Gospel of John (Matthew, Mark, or Luke do not record it), after the Last Supper, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciple’s feet. 

So that first "Maundy Thursday," Jesus did what only a servant would do -- and the lowest-ranked servant at that: he modeled service. 

He told his followers that following him meant loving him, and loving him meant loving and serving others.   

But here's the thing: 


Jesus did something that was done on a daily basis: in a culture/society where sandals and dust and probably raw sewage was common, but well before modern daily showers, covered shoes, and clean sidewalks, foot-washing was common

It isn't anymore. 

But the church has turned Jesus' one-time, one-Gospel-recorded foot-washing demonstration into a ritual, a liturgy. Sometimes it's even set to pretty music.  

Fair enough: the church has done the same thing with the other event that happened that night -- the Last Supper, turning it, too, into a ritual, a liturgy-sometimes-set-to-pretty-music. 

But that (the Last Supper) was re-appropriating a ritual meal already long in place (the Seder). And eating bread and drinking wine are still common practices. We still do that.  

The foot-washing, on the other hand, seemed to be a one-time dramatic-demonstration-to-make-a-point, much like when he gathered a small child in his arms to make a shock-value point about who is most able to comprehend Kingdom-of-Heaven values, or when he rode humbly into Jerusalem on a donkey instead triumphantly in a chariot to make a shock-value point about the kind of ruler he is. 

It doesn't seem Jesus was trying to institute a formal church custom in those instances. 

Now let me be clear: I don't have any trouble with churches and people who find meaning in this ritual. My intention here is not to try to talk anyone out of doing this if they find it makes them better disciples of Jesus, closer to God, more loving to their fellow human beings. 

But -- using "I" statements here -- for the reasons above, I find the foot-washing service (at least as I've always done it and seen it done) as contrived, or precious. And if I’m reading my Bible correctly, there is nothing contrived or precious about Jesus. So since coming to my new church, taking advantage of having a blank slate/fresh start, I haven’t done it. (We've done an instructed Eucharist instead.)  

But here's the problem: Neither do I want to throw out the baby of loving-service-to-others with the foot-washing bathwater. (Ha! You see what I did there?)   

So we are doing something else this Maundy Thursday. 

And that’s to invite people to “Maundy Thursday SERVICE.” 

We are having a day, culminating that evening, when we – who as inside-the-beltway Episcopalians are ordinarily in positions to BE served – serve.

Well, in starting to plan this Maundy Thursday SERVICE, it begged the question, “where, whom, to serve?” Among the many possibilities, how to choose? 

We want to go out into the city, not out of a sense of noblesse oblige (the "inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged,") but out of a loving, Christ-like, Jesus-following sense.  

And that begged the further questions: "who are those who normally serve? -- easy answers are waiters, bus drivers, cashiers. How about cleaning crews? Parking garage attendants? Public servants? The point is, “what will it look like if instead of making Maundy Thursday a day when people should come to the church building, the church (the Body of Christ) went out to those who spend much of their days (and working lives) serving others, and we serve them, somehow?” Thus, our “Maundy Thursday SERVICE.”  

We're starting small this year: we're de-centralizing the effort and encouraging members of our congregation, during their Maundy Thursday day wherever they are, to find ways to serve those who serve. We will also come together in the early evening and make home-made box lunches which we'll we'll hand-deliver on Friday to nursing home attendants, first-responders, and others of our neighbors who serve. 

The day will end with a simple Taize-style worship service, with communion. As part of the service, we'll invite folks to light a votive candle and say a prayer of thanksgiving for those who serve, while praying that the desire to serve others continue to burn within us, year-round.

If this idea gains traction, in future years, I'd love to find ways we as a congregation can serve the city: take on some unwanted task in the city somewhere -- some nasty project no one wants to take on that 100 church folk could descend upon and make a real difference in one day. 

That’s as far as we've gotten with this idea. 

But this year, I find myself looking forward to Maundy Thursday in ways I haven't for years. Because this year's Maundy Thursday service will be Maundy Thursday SERVICE. And that somehow feels more Jesus-like.   

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