On Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ disciples were unaware of the crisis they were about to endure. Jesus’ public ministry had been full of tension, threat, and danger. The disciples knew that well. But they were not prepared for his death, a crisis that would shake them to the core.
Many Christians in the United States are approaching the Triduum, the Three Days leading up to Easter, in much the same mindset. We are beset on all sides by the realities of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. We are experiencing tension, threat, and danger. But, as I have written previously, many Americans are not fully aware of the overwhelming nature of the collective trauma to come.
Jesus tries to communicate what he knows to be true: that he will soon be betrayed, tortured, and killed. This year’s appointed lectionary text—John 13:1–17, 31b–35—emphasizes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet but omits his foretelling of Judas’s betrayal.
The grand societal reversal of Jesus’ self-debasing act of washing his disciples’ feet and commandment to “love one another” takes on profound meaning in this time when first responders, EMTs, nurses, doctors, and all medical personnel are demonstrating the strength of their vocational commitments by girding themselves to save as many lives as possible as we confront this pandemic. Our newfound recognition of workers in morgues, funeral homes, grocery stores, restaurants, and food delivery services—now understood as essential—amply demonstrates the reversal Jesus sought to communicate to his disciples.
With all of this, Jesus’ disciples do not show any awareness of the Good Friday crisis to come. When Jesus tells them he will be betrayed, they seem less focused on the crime than who will commit it. In Matthew’s Gospel, they are mostly concerned about themselves: “they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Matt 26:22).
As with any moment of distress, this COVID-19 crisis has brought out our best and our worst. Just as we see medical personnel placing themselves at risk even though protective equipment supplies are running short, we see other humans embodying what Martin Luther understood to be the essence of sin: humans turned in upon themselves (incurvatus in se).
If we are to tell the truth about ourselves, we know that we can never really overcome that impulse to seek benefit for ourselves and our families alone. The truth of Maundy Thursday, however, is that we don’t need to overcome that on our own. We know this because Jesus chose to debase himself, not just washing his disciples’ feet, but giving his body and blood for salvation.
The Gospel of John is filled with Eucharistic images related to what we sometimes call the Last Supper. It just doesn’t appear in the portion most ELCA congregations will read tonight in Maundy Thursday worship. If anybody thought a master washing his students’ feet was a challenging image, a teacher giving his flesh and blood as a gift for the forgiveness of sins is an even more difficult teaching (John 6.60).
Maundy Thursday, the start of the Triduum, recognizes the practice of foot washing and the sacrament of Holy Communion. Holy Communion is a sacrament because, along with Baptism, it is a means of God’s grace effective for salvation.
This grace is a gift freely given to all, no matter your relative amount of sin or heroism in the midst of this public health crisis. It is a gift of healing given freely to all who are ill, whether in body or spirit. The disciples’ almost comical lack of comprehension does nothing to deter Jesus’ insistence on loving them to the end.
The tension, threat, and danger of the present pandemic reminds us that we live in a fallen, imperfect world. Maundy Thursday reminds us every possible response to this crisis—from political malpractice to effective local leadership, from desperate self-protection to profound care for neighbors—are met with God’s compassionate, self-giving love. This love is given freely for you.
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, TX).