As this article is being written, I am on the 20th day being home with my husband, two small children, and my mother. When I agreed to write this post a month ago I never imagined this would be our life heading into Holy Week. I jumped at the opportunity to write about Maundy Thursday—it is one of my most favorite services in the church year. I planned to tell you stories about the incredible moments I shared washing the feet of acquaintances, friends, and strangers. I was convinced that after reading my post you would put your family in the car and rush to the closest church—so compelling would my argument for this experience be.
And yet, here we are. There aren’t any church doors open for you to walk through, untie your shoes, then wash another person’s feet. Given the sudden new landscape, I found myself returning to the drawing board for this post. While my past experiences stand as having been deeply moving and profound, those stories suddenly seemed less relevant. I had to consider what Maundy Thursday could and would look like for us this year.
Thankfully, I have an understanding husband and mother, and children so small they have no sense of the calendar. So we decided to move Maundy Thursday up a week. I wanted to see what it would be like if we shared a family meal, took off our shoes and socks, and washed each other’s feet in our dining room. I wanted to try it, so I could tell you about it.
When I made the decision to test run Maundy Thursday I wondered what our family would even look like by the time we observed it. How will we feel about being together? Will we want anything to do with one another? Will we even be able to make conversation at dinner without pulling out our hair due to the repetition of all our family dynamics?
What I didn’t expect was that I would wake up the morning of our dinner awashed in grief. Grief has been with us in one form or another since this started, but on this day it was particularly heavy. Maybe it was the fact that the sky was gray again. Maybe it was because I knew I had a staff meeting ahead of me when we would need to make tough decisions. Maybe it was because my oldest son asked to come home, and I knew he would have to quarantine for two weeks upon return. There were plenty of reasons, but the fact remains I woke up feeling heavy. I moved through the day on the verge of tears and I looked toward my evening plans with fatigue. I didn’t want a special meal. I didn’t want to convince two children to wash each other’s feet. I didn’t want extra work to have still another family meal.
Interestingly enough the word “Maundy” comes from the word “mandate,” as it serves as a reminder of the actions Jesus mandated us to do before his death. If I’m being honest, Jesus’ mandate might not have been enough to make dinner happen, but a post deadline and my own expectations did the trick. I was (self) mandated, and so I did it.
At lunch we told the kids about our “special” dinner. My son Sam (age 5) immediately insisted he didn’t want to wash feet or have his feet washed. I had promised myself that this activity would be encouraged, but not forced, so we made an agreement that he could take pictures.
Mid-afternoon I stopped everything I was trying to get done during the day to set the table and start making it look special for the family. I was surprised to find myself warming to the task.
Then I put some work into the area where we would wash one another’s feet. My children are short, so this required some creativity.
Thankfully, a meal on Maundy Thursday typically calls for simplicity, so I prepped soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. And then, even though every part of me didn’t want to do it, I left the house for the walk I take every day at 4pm. It was raining and I’m tired of walking the same three routes. But I did it anyway, and the fresh air helped. By the time I got home I was almost looking forward to dinner.
I finished cooking and we gathered at the table. We used a service created by St. John’s Church in Linden Hills, Minnesota, which was simple and doable with small children. We lit candles and prayed, and suddenly Sam realized he wasn’t dressed in fancy clothes for our special dinner. He left the table to go change. My husband looked at me, waiting for me to insist he stay at the table, but that wasn’t the deal. We let him go.
We ate, shared stories from scripture, and talked about why Jesus washed the feet of his friends. My kids mostly listened, and mostly stayed at the table— a victory. By the end of the meal they were excited for the next part and began asking, “is it time?”
We moved to the bench, and Sam started taking pictures. He was really clear that he wanted pictures of everybody’s feet. Including the dog (who’s feet we did not wash).
We asked who wanted to go first. Sam did, of course. Kids, man. Then we took turns, each person choosing who would go next and who would wash that person’s feet. When our 3-year-old daughter said she wanted to wash my feet, I sat on the bench and put my feet in the bowl. I looked down as her sweet hands patted the water over my feet—no inhibition, all tenderness. My heart caught in my throat. We watched one another take turns, and it was so very beautiful. For a few fleeting minutes we shared sacred time, a total departure from all the other shared experiences over the last three weeks. In this moment, time stood still in the best possible way.
In the end, my message about Maundy Thursday is the same as it would have been had I written before ever considering what “social distancing” meant. And here is the message: kneeling at the feet of another human and washing their feet is one of the most profound, beautiful, and sacred moments I have been privileged to share in my life.
Every. Single. Time.
I knew that to be true from years of washing the feet of parishioners, friends, and strangers, and now I know it to be true with the people I am the most intimate with and yet with whom I never think to kneel down before to honor as Jesus honored his friends.
There’s a chance that I will look back over this time with my family and remember this meal and footwashing, as the single most precious moment we shared together during the shocking, unprecedented, and outrageous spring of 2020.
Listen friends: you likely won’t want to do this. You’ll wake up and want to take the easy road – there’s no priest to notice if you’re observing Maundy Thursday, no obligation, no altar guild commitment. You’ll be so tired of your family you’ll rather eat dinner with anyone else. But I promise you – Jesus will be present with you. And you will be so very grateful to have encountered him in the faces of your family.