Sometimes I’m asked after our Maundy Thursday service why we don’t hold a foot washing like some other churches do on that night. They’re never quite prepared for my answer. The reason I don’t do foot washings is that I’m not sure about the theology communicated in that act, namely that we are at all capable of loving one another as Christ loved us, as he commanded us to.

Let me explain. The Maundy Thursday Gospel reading is actually two sections cut together, such that it gives the impression that Jesus washes his disciples feet, then immediately gives them the commandment to love one another. Actually, the scene in between, as well as the scene that occurs right after the commandment to love, are both more instructive as to the extent of this love. The scene in between is the one that results in Jesus giving the commandment to love, and not the foot washing. And what happens in between is that Judas leaves the room and goes off in the night to commit his betrayal. So John isn’t linking the commandment to love one another with foot washing. He’s linking it with the betrayal of Judas. The commandment is to love our betrayers, as Jesus loved his.

Sketch for ‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’ c.1851 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893

That’s a tall order. And the scene right after the love commandment is similar. It’s the scene where Jesus foretells that Peter will deny him three times. So Jesus is commanding us to love those who would deny they even know us when the going gets rough. We’ve all had such people in our lives, who desert us when we need them most. And Jesus is commanding us to love the ones who desert us, as he loved those who deserted him. The way the lectionary sets up the Maundy Thursday reading makes it a little too cozy, a little too rosy, for it to truly communicate the momentousness of what’s happening. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with foot washings. I just don’t care to do one as part of the liturgy. I think the stripping of the altar at the end of our service is far more illustrative of our reality.

We are commanded to love one another, and we are commanded to do so by someone who humbled himself, though he was king of all the universe, humbled himself to take the place of the lowest servant, and wash the feet of his own betrayers. That’s beautiful, and it’s meant by John to highlight what he said at the beginning of the reading, one of my favorite verses. John begins the Maundy Thursday Gospel with one of the loveliest statements in all the Bible — one that rivals John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” and yet one that augments John 3:16, by adding weight to it. Now that the time had come, John says of Jesus, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the very end.” Really, that’s what the foot washing is all about.

Jesus is about to show the full extent of his love, by being betrayed by Judas, whom he loves, by being denied by Peter, whom he loves, and by being put through one of the most horrible, cruel and tortuous methods of execution ever devised, all at the hands of the people he loves. That is the great irony of Holy Week. Jesus loves us even as we put him to death. It is this to which the foot washing is pointing, to the events of Good Friday when Jesus loved us to the very end, when Christ said, “It is finished.” That’s the end to which the foot washing points.

This act on Jesus’ part, of taking the lowliest position and doing the most menial task, is meant to highlight for his disciples, and for us, the full extent of God’s love for us. It is another way of saying that God so loved the world that there was no end to the lengths he would go to love us.