The Thursday of Holy Week is called by a wide-ranging number of names according to one’s particular faith tradition, but most call it Maundy Thursday or more simply, Holy Thursday.
It’s a day of bright wonder as we reflect upon Jesus’ simple actions and deep words on the evening when he pulled aside his disciples to a reserved room dedicated to their observance of Passover.
More specifically, it evokes a remembrance of Jesus’ new commandment to love one another, amply illustrated by the startling image of Jesus on hands and knees before each disciple washing their dusty feet.
The evening moved from the hospitality to the shared meal to the breaking of bread and the shared cup.
This gathering culminated in a hymn and their departure into the foreboding night to the garden for prayer.
Writer John Shea claims when we come together in Christian community, “we gather the people, tell the stories and break the bread.”
When we consider the reenactment of that night as a form of memory, we enter into the stream of Christian drama that forms us and helps us enter sacred and mysterious memory.
Popes have washed the feet of the faithful for centuries on the day before Good Friday.
But when the pontiff washed and kissed the feet of a group of prisoners, which included a Serbian Muslim woman a year ago, a firestorm flashed around the world signaling a new appreciation for a troublesome pope reminiscent of Jesus.
Participating in the Maundy Thursday ceremony were 12 inmates ranging in age from 14 to 21 – 10 men and two women.
Kneeling at their feet, Pope Francis poured water over the young offenders’ feet, wiped them with a white towel and then bent to kiss them.
The pope said simply, “There is no better way to show his service for the smallest, for the least fortunate.”
This humble act opened up the conversation on self-sacrificing ministry and suggested a new priority on serving the poor.
It also signaled a new appreciation of the power of service over religious protocol.
“It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord. We need to go out to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters,” he said. “The priests should be ‘shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.'”
Mother Teresa once prayed on Maundy Thursday, “Forgive us, Lord, if we unwittingly share in the conditions or in a system that perpetuates injustice. Show us how we can serve your children and make your love practical by washing their feet.”