Maundy Thursday – John 13

Headline news on Huffington Post (an internet news site) in 2014:

On April 17, 2014, Pope Francis will visit the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi home and wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities. The ritual will happen on Maundy Thursday, which remembers the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles prior to their Passover meal.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis made headlines when he washed the feet of two women at a Rome youth prison, a sharp departure from the foot-washing of 12 priests in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica. [1]

Wikipedia says that : “In a notable break from the 1955 norms, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome 2013. In 2016, it was announced that the Roman Missal had been revised to permit women to have their feet washed on Maundy Thursday; previously it permitted only males to do so.” [2]

Over many years, the usual papal ritual has been for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 selected priests in an endeavour to mirror Jesus’ action at the last supper. Pope Francis sought to move away from this careful and beautiful choreography towards something more meaningful.

As Pope Francis did this, he symbolically took the place of Jesus and his message was the same. Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Pope Francis was saying the same to those who accept his leadership: “If I, you spiritual leader, have washed the feet of the elderly and infirm, the least you can do is treat them as human beings and honour them by serving them as you would serve your Lord.”

This is the most obvious challenge in the passage from John 13 for those of us who want to faithfully follow Jesus. If we were to stop with that thought, we’d have something worthwhile to think about on Maundy Thursday.

However, this is not the only challenge that faces us in the passage from John 13.

Let’s think about Peter’s response to Jesus. He says, “You will never wash my feet.” In these words is another challenge, which for many of us might be more significant?

So often our focus in the evening service on Maundy Thursday is on Jesus, and rightly so. His humility and servant love call for a response. And so, perhaps, we make a mental note to be a little more generous in the way we deal with other people. Or we feel something as the service progresses – our emotions are affected and we feel like behaving differently.

But what does the story feel like, if instead of identifying with Jesus, we take Peter’s place. … What was it that provoked Peter to say: “You will never wash my feet.”

Was it a sense that it wasn’t right? Perhaps Peter felt that a leader should not do something usually done by the lowest of slaves.

Was it embarrassment? My feet are so dirty, they’ve got corns and bunyons, my toes are mis-shapen. I don’t want you to see.

Or, was it embarrassment for another reason? Did none of the disciples want the job? Were they looking round at each other wondering who would crack first? And then shock, horror – it is Jesus who picks up the slave’s towel.

Or, was it pride? Under no circumstances am I going to be so demeaned as to have you touch my feet.

What do you think it was that provoked Peter’s response? .Take a few moments to think about this. …….

Then I’d like to ask you a few other questions.

In a moment or two, in this article, we will move on to think about the particularly unique circumstances which face us in Holy Week in 2020, but let’s for a moment stick with the story in John 13 and with our attempt to identify with Peter.

What is it that has governed your decision on Maundy Thursday in the past. When you have been presented with the opportunity in church to have your feet washed. What has it been that has kept you in your seat? Or come to that, what is it that propels you out of your seat to come forward to have a foot washed?

Let’s translate the same question into more general circumstances. … When someone offers to serve you in another context, or seeks to help you, what is your response? Would it be one of these?

‘I am not prepared to accept charity.’

‘Go away, I don’t want your help.’

‘What is in it for you?’ ‘There must be a catch!’

What governs/governed your decision? Is it, or was it, a sense of propriety? Is it, or was it, embarrassment? Was it pride? … Is (or was) your response like that of Peter: “You will never wash my feet.”

There is a phrase we sometimes quote: “It is better to give than to receive.” There are times, however, when the giving is easy and the receiving is so much harder. It is actually often easier to serve than be served; often easier to serve than to take praise for our service; it is sometimes easier to give than to receive. The real challenge for us can be the need to be willing to receive the love shown to us by others.

Perhaps you could take a few moments to think about how you respond to love shown to you before you go on to read the rest of this reflection. …………………………….

We are in very strange circumstances in 2020. It feels as though Holy Week and Easter has been cancelled. Not that they have, of course. Our additional challenge is to find a way to engage over the next few days with the most important stories of the Christian faith and to do so in a way that unites us as members of the body of Christ.

We have been told that Archbishop Justin Welby, “will not be conducting the annual Maundy Thursday public ceremony of foot washing this year.” [3] That statement was made before a decision had finally been taken to close our Churches to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is true. No clergy will this year be washing the feet of members of our congregations. It seems as though many things now serve only to emphasise our isolation – the inability to share in the physical Eucharist, the loss of our regular services, the need to communicate only by phone, email, text, face-time and letter, the loss of physical contact with people from other generations in our families. All these things, and more leave us alone or even lonely – isolated from what means most to us.

Yet, the spirit of service, that essential commitment to caring for others, which is so dramatically played out in the story of John 13 is with us in the most purposeful of ways. There are those today who are choosing to touch what is untouchable, who are choosing to place themselves in harm’s way. There are those who, without the benefit of suitable PPE are touching and washing not just the dirty feet of others, but whole bodies as well, bodies that are infected and so are dangerous to touch. What seems to have brought isolation to so many, is also demanding so much from others.

The idea of foot-washing seems to be somewhat irrelevant in the context of all that is going on. The loss of the ceremony seems almost to be an unimportant footnote in the current crisis.

But the loss of this ceremony is significant. The loss of this, specific, personal contact is relevant. This loss is symbolic not only of all our other losses, but symbolic too of the selfless giving of others. I hope that in future years we will be able to see this ceremony as a focus for our gratitude that physical contact is once again possible for all of us, and as an act of gratitude for the love and care of others. I hope that we will all see having our feet washed as one essential part of the flow of the seasons of the church’s year.


  1., accessed on 5th April 2020.
  2., accessed on 5th April 2020.
  3., accessed on 5th April 2020.

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