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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

Maundy Thursday
March 28, 2024

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-15

Despite all the changes that came with the first English Reformation and the 1534 Acts of Supremacy, the Church’s old liturgical life was basically left as it was. Yes, lessons from Scripture were to be read in English, the people were to receive Holy Communion, and the whole realm had to adopt the rites, ceremonies, and customs of Salisbury Cathedral, and these were great changes (especially for folks from the North who had to give up the distinctive liturgy of the Use of York), but they were relatively minor, when you think about it. The Latin Mass was still to be said daily, the church calendar was pretty much left intact, and this meant that the cycle of feast and fast by which the people regulated their lives remained pretty much the same. They still had Advent and Christmas, Candlemas, and, perhaps most importantly, they still had Holy Week and Easter, with all its fully embodied actions that we know so well.

All that changed when Henry VIII died in 1547 and young Edward VI ascended the throne, for in 1549 a new English liturgy was introduced by the new king’s Protestant handlers in the form of the first Book of Common Prayer. Its use was enforced by the power of law, and with one little book, that cycle of feast and fast, processions and ceremonies, was swept away, including Holy Week. Indeed, for the better part of four hundred fifty years, since Elizabeth I fostered her settlement of religion, the days of Holy Week were noted in the calendar, had their proper lessons and prayers at the Office and Communion, but that was about it. The pageantry, colour, movement were gone, and it took the Catholic revival in the nineteenth century and its influence upon the church-wide liturgical reforms of the second half of the twentieth, to give Holy Week back to all of us. .

Today we have Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve in a shape recognisable to both modern Roman Catholics and, I think, to our pre-Reformation predecessors in England and throughout the West. Maundy Thursday, however, is an outlier. The traditional ceremonies of the day included the reconciliation of the penitents who had been ejected on Ash Wednesday, the Mass commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, at cathedral churches the blessing of oils, evensong, the stripping of the altars, and, finally, foot washing. This last element took place just before Compline and was a private ceremony just for that religious community. Public foot washing ceremonies had largely vanished by the turn of the first millennium, although, strangely enough, a vestige of those rites was the only post-Reformation survival in the Church of England of those old medieval rites, in the form of the Royal Maundy. .

Since at least the early thirteenth-century, in imitation of Christ, the sovereign washed the feet of a number of poor and deserving subjects, and gave them money, food and clothing. As late as the reign of Mary I, during the restoration of the Roman Catholicism, this tradition continued intact. We know, in fact, that in 1556 Mary personally washed the feet of forty-two women, and gave gifts of clothing and food, in addition to money. Elizabeth I unhesitatingly continued the tradition of the Royal Maundy, although she did away with the foot washing and reduced the ceremony to simply presenting money in a red purse. Indeed, this is exactly what Queen Camilla did earlier today at Worcester Cathedral. But here’s the thing. Out of all that was happening on Maundy Thursday – the reconciliation of penitents, blessing oils, stripping altars in an elaborate procession while singing antiphons, and finally the pedilavium (as it was known) – only the Maundy continued, in a reduced form, and only at court. In the average parish church, there was simply matins, litany and ante- communion, and evensong. .

When the Episcopal Church introduced its Holy Week rites in the 1979 Prayer Book, as I said, the other services retained their historic shape – indeed tomorrow, Good Friday, is almost completely unchanged from the old rites. Maundy Thursday did not. In the new book, there was a dramatic shift of emphasis back to the Maundy – the New Commandment – and the foot washing. This became centred at the heart of the liturgy, with the first of the two alternate Gospel readings taken from John’s account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The new liturgy put foot washing in a spotlight, in each and every parish church, in a way it had never been before, at least not for over a thousand or more years. It was a subversive and beautiful thing to do. .

In John’s Gospel, Jesus completely blind-sided his friends when he “rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.” The disciples were shocked. Jesus was clearly their superior in every way. It was such an intimate gesture. .

In a funny way, how the disciples reacted when Jesus went to wash their feet is not far off from the reaction of many Episcopalians when their priests told them, one Holy Week in the late 1970s or early 80s, that he was going to wash their feet. Or worse, they were going to be asked to wash each other’s feet. At my old parish in Harvard Square, they would set up about half a dozen pairs of chairs facing each other so people could take it in turns. Foot washing, then, turns out to be a hard sell, It was for the disciples. It was and, perhaps still is, for us, for our friends and neighbours. Honestly, I never volunteered to have my feet washed, or do the washing until I was ordained. .

But here is the thing, I think the whole point on some level is the discomfort. Taking the time to minister to someone in that way, Jesus tells us is a profound act of love. God’s love is discomfiting; that kind of intimate caring for each and every one of us just because we exist; caring for our benefit and not God’s own is not always easy to grasp. And this is what Jesus says,

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Jesus tells us that the Love of God is meant to flow into us from him, and then we are to return it in the form of our loving our neighbours. We are to love one another as Christ has loved us. That is our work as Christians, it is the supreme meaning of our new life in baptism, and Jesus exemplified this by washing the disciples’ feet.

Rather than keep Maundy Thursday as it was, a perhaps overly complicated set of liturgical actions, the new liturgies, now almost half a century old, did something new. It shocked us into a new appreciation, a new understanding of the nature of divine love, in the action we are called upon to undertake, as we shall in a few minutes. Just another Eucharist about the Eucharist would have felt like any Sunday, when we hear Jesus’ words from the Last Supper telling us to eat the bread and drink the cup as his body and blood, and do this always in remembrance of him. But now Maundy Thursday can stand to give us a new lens through with to view the New Commandment, the Mandate, the Maundy we are called to follow. “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another” as he has loved us.

Andrew Charles Blume ✠
New York City
Wednesday in Holy Week, 27 March 2024

© 2024 Andrew Charles Blume