Maundy Thursday is probably my favorite service of the year. The gravitas of that sacred night lends extra buoyancy to the joy of Easter. The darkness of the Upper Room makes the brightness of Easter more brilliant. The cup, the bread, the candles, singing “Where You There?” Hearing the scriptures about the prayer in Gethsemane, the kiss, the arrest. This is heavy stuff, made heavier with the knowledge that this machination of manipulation and betrayal will end in Jesus’ death. Even though we know Easter is coming, Maundy Thursday still makes my soul shudder.
Some Maundy Thursday services incorporate a footwashing, recalling Jesus’ radical act of servanthood from John’s gospel. I’ve never lead one of these services, thinking it might make people too uncomfortable. Of course, that’s my way of projecting my own anxiety and dis-ease with the practice onto my congregation. Feet are icky and dirty and ugly enough that we cover them up, which was exactly Jesus’ point in the first place. When we let Jesus touch the icky, dirty, ugly things in our lives, they are transformed. I’m working through my own hang-ups on this one.
As a compromise, at our Maundy Thursday service last evening we did a handwashing. There’s good justification for the
adaptation. In Jesus’ day, the feet carried the bulk of the load, accumulating dust and sweat as sandal-wearing people trod their paths on dirt roads. Today, our feet are encased in socks and shoes, sheltered from the elements. Instead, it is our hands that do the dirty work, lifting and pulling and bending and clicking. Our hands work hard and deserve some attention.
But, if we’re willing to admit it, our hands do more than hard work. Our hands curl into fists when we are angry at someone. Our hands clutch tightly to our possessions or our pocketbooks. Our hands can strike at someone else, leaving physical and psychological scars. We can use our fingers to point the blame or let other drivers know what we think of that unsignaled turn they just made in front of us. Yes, our hands do a lot of work, but not all of it is good.
So last night, we cleansed our hands. I had the privilege of being the washer at one of the basins. Each person who came forward told a story with their hands. Some people thrust them forward, eager to have the water wash over them. Some offered only one hand, maybe wondering if they were worthy of such an act of grace. Some offered their hands palms-up, as if asking for a blessing, while others put them forward palms-down, as if the shame of their hands’ actions weighed heavily on them. One woman, a visitor whom I did not know, came forward with tears streaming down her face. She offered her hands and as I washed them, repeated, “Thank you. Thank you.” I can only imagine the pain those hands had seen, and I prayed for Jesus to use this healing water to bring her peace.
While I don’t know for sure, I believe we had in worship with us last night a recently paroled convict, a sex offender who served his time and was taking the first steps toward putting his life back together. He came forward and offered his hands, and I felt myself hesitate. Even him, Lord? I have to wash his hands, too? In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me.” Yes, yes, his hands, too. Especially his hands. Either Jesus came for all of us, or Jesus came for none of us. “Not all of you are clean,” Jesus said. At that moment, I was filthy with judgment, sullied by my own version of justice that would deny the life-giving waters to a fellow sinner. I was this man’s hands, but I pray that I was the one who was cleansed.
Some of the hands were big, calloused, world-word and rough. Some of the hands were smooth, perfumed, blingy with jewelry. Several were shriveled, veiny, skeletal. I wonder all the things those hands have done: raked leaves, patted backs, struck cheeks, handed money, rubbed shoulders, pounded desks. Our hands can do such good, and such evil. But after they were washed, each pair of hands did something wondrous, something holy: they took a piece of bread, tore it off, and dipped it in the cup. Were you there? Jesus was in powerful ways. And I thank God I was, as well.