Maundy Thursday – Footwashing, Altar Stripping

Today is Maundy Thursday. We celebrate this as part of the Great Triduum, the three day Easter Service. We mark the giving of the New Commandment, the institution of The Lord’s Supper, or Holy Eucharist. It is also quite common to remember Jesus washing his disciples feet. These three are all part of the Biblical story surrounding Easter. You can find out a little more about the first two, by visiting Rev. Donald’s personal blog for some reflections on them.

Maundy Thursday foot washing.
The jug, basin, and towels waiting to be used in Maundy Thursday foot washing.

Another thing that is commonly done in Anglican churches (and probably others), is the stripping of the altar at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday portion of the service. I say portion because Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are all one service. That is why there is no dismissal at the end of the Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. We leave in silence from those services, so that we can allow ourselves to fully enter into the mystery and agony of Jesus’s death and burial. While we never forget that Easter Sunday is coming, we don’t want to race ahead and forget to reflect on the more difficult and painful memories of Passion Week. Learning to sit in silence and grief is all part of the resurrection process.

Jesus Washes his Diciple’s Feet

In our foot washing on Maundy Thursday we are reminded that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples when they gathered in the upper room. If you are not familiar with that story, I’ve copied it here below as it appears in the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of John.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”* For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus, despite being the teacher and the one you would expect to be the recipient of the footwashing, instead takes it upon himself to be a servant and wash the feet of his disciples. Washing feet after a journey on the road would not necessarily be a pleasant job. Yet Jesus shows his humility by being a willing washer of the feet of his disciples. Though we wish to be in the role of Jesus as we read this, I think we often find ourselves in the role of Peter, unwilling to let Jesus wash our feet. There is humility in washing feet, but there is also humility in allowing our feet to be washed. Often our unwillingness to allow others to wash our feet is based in an unwillingness to let people see us as we really our. Our shoes and socks hide the real condition of our feet in much the same way our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual masks, cover up the sin and pain in our lives. *It should be noted that even though Jesus knows, and makes reference to Judas and his coming betrayal, Jesus still washed his feet as well.

Stripping the Altar

Clearly the stripping of the altar is not part of the Biblical narrative of the Passion Week. Then, why do it? There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but instead of listing them, I’m going to point you to this article by Richard Lischer. Lischer is a professor at Duke Divinity School, the same school where Stanley Hauerwas, whose videos are elsewhere on this site, was also a professor. Lischer’s book The End of Words, was one of the textbooks for the preaching course I took while I was at St. John’s College studying for the priesthood. I think this article does a good job of summing up many of the reasons why we strip the altar at the end of our Maundy Thursday service.

Our Maundy Thursday service at Saint Philip’s is tonight, March 29th, at 7:00pm. Our address is 240 Tache Avenue, and we would be delighted if you could join us for this solemn and thoughtful entrance into the great three day service of Easter. We will also be marking Good Friday, on March 30th at 11:00 am, and Easter Sunday, April 1st, at 11:00 am. We will follow our Easter Sunday with a time of celebration and coffee following the Eucharist.