Maundy Thursday is almost here…that’s what they call Thursday during Holy Week on the Christian liturgical calendar. Sometimes it’s also called Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, as well as Uncomfortable and Messy Thursday.
To be fair, I think I’m the only one who calls it that last one. But I’m hoping it catches on.
As the story goes, on the Thursday night before Jesus was crucified, he and his disciples shared a “Last Supper, ” then Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and commanded them to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum novum, meaning “new commandment.”
Because of this, Maundy Thursday services often have both foot-washing and communion on the agenda. And perhaps, not surprisingly, this tends to be the least attended event of Holy Week.
I blame the foot-washing.
At our church, we’ve tried to incorporate foot-washing without making it obligatory…and off-putting. There are usually three hand-washing stations set up around the room and just one for foot-washing…just in case anyone is actually interested. Most people are not.
Now I will admit, with some shame because it seems so decadent, I do love a good pedicure. But paying a stranger to scrub and rub and exfoliate your feet doesn’t feel the same as having someone you chat with at the church coffee hour volunteer to wash your feet. Volunteer to take your feet into their hands and see them as they really are, beat-up, scarred and calloused, often ugly and misshapen, possibly stinky…and treat them with tenderness and compassion and love.
That’s just weird. And awkward.
As I understand it, in Jesus time, since everyone wore sandals, foot-washing was common when entering a home, because most people’s feet were filthy…think donkey-droppings everywhere, camel-dung-strewn streets. Usually you washed your own feet unless you happened to end up at the home of a rich person who had slaves do it for you.
So when Jesus started washing his disciples feet to show his love, the disciples didn’t like it so much. It was weird and awkward. And confusing and messy. It made them uncomfortable. They were resistant. It caused tension between them and Jesus.
Because here’s the thing, the thing that any of us who have ever tried to give or receive love knows: it’s always harder than it looks.
No matter how much you love each other.
For example, I used to come home from work at night and as my way of trying to connect with my husband Gary I’d say, “So what did you do today?” Because I wanted to feel closer to him.
Sure, I kind of noticed that every time I asked that question he’d stiffen up, pull back a little. And either change the subject or answer begrudgingly. But I didn’t understand this since I was asking him this perfectly simple question out of love and with the hope of drawing us closer together. So, even though his response or non-response confused and hurt me, I kept asking. Maybe not every night, but at least a couple times a week. And he’d always respond the same way. This went on for a while…ok, 20 YEARS, give or take. Until finally one day I blew up and asked why he was being such an a-hole when I was asking such a perfectly loving friggin’ question.
We had a “discussion.” In which he finally told me (maybe finally understood himself) that every time I asked that question he felt like I was asking for an accounting of his day…in order to decide whether or not he’d done enough. And he never felt like he’d done enough.
So I don’t think it was a coincidence that the night Jesus washed his disciples feet was also the night he reportedly said “Love one another as I have loved you.” He didn’t say those words in the middle of a Disney-esque moment when love was easy and birds were singing and everyone was feeling fine and running in slow motion through fields of flowers. He said it when people were having a very difficult time taking in his love because it didn’t fit their picture of what it should look like. And also, possibly a moment, when he was feeling a tiny bit hurt because they couldn’t take it in.
Perhaps Jesus chose the weird, uncomfortable, awkward moment with his disciples to make his big statement about how we needed to love one another… this totally non-feel-good moment… because that’s what it actually means to love.
Maybe Jesus wanted us to know that love was going to be hard to take in, more often than not. And it was going to hurt like a mother-f-er when we were desperately trying to show our love and the person on the receiving end was unable to receive it, or the way we were trying to show it was totally NOT what they really needed, and we were going to want to say “What’s the point?” and walk out the door and not bother ever again.
I think about this sometimes, as a white woman who wants to stand in solidarity with black people and with the Black Lives Matter movement, as a person of privilege who cares about the poor, as a person who lives in relative ease and security who cares about refugees, and injustice and violence and wants to make the world more safe and welcoming to all.
I want to be a person who’s helping, who’s loving…but honestly, quite often, I don’t always know how to do that, or if what I do end up doing is “right.” And it feels vulnerable, it feels risky, and awkward…I’m afraid that sometimes I’m asking the wrong questions (like I did with my husband), or showing love in ways that don’t feel all that loving to the recipients.
And I often find myself thinking I should just stop trying. Because I’m just stumbling and fumbling around here.
But Maundy Thursday is a reminder to me, a fairly direct message from Jesus, I believe, to keep going, be brave, and keep diving into the awkward mess of love.
It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t give up, no matter how hard it is, how much it hurts sometimes, no matter how wrong we get it sometimes. We need to keep trying, and also we need to ask the awkward questions, ask people who we are trying to love, does this feel loving to you? (By the way, on that front, I just ran across this wonderful resource, a free download from Chalice Press called “Towards the Other America: Anti-Racist Resources For White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter.”)
Because, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, trying to give and receive love is important, it’s why we’re on this planet and it’s worth it.
I don’t know if I’ll go all the way on Maundy Thursday this year, get all naked with my feet, take off my socks and shoes and let them be loved.
But I do believe we are on this earth to love. And I hope I have the courage to.