Maundy Thursday Provides a Lesson in Humility

by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Maundy Thursday in Hyerabad

A Christian worshipper at the St. Alphonsus Church in Hyderabad during a Maundy Thursday service. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

The Thursday of Holy Week (the week before Easter) has special meaning for Christians. Often referred to as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum which means “command or instruction”), it is not a “holy day of obligation” for Roman Catholics but often includes a church service commemorating the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was crucified.

One version of the Last Supper

The Last Supper (1574-1575) depicted by Italian painter Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto. (Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The events recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 22, verses 19-20 — in which Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciples — are said to be the liturgical basis for practicing communion.

Many churches offer the Eucharist at a special mass on this day.

Pope Benedict XVI holds the Eucharist in celebration of the Chrismal Mass of Maundy Thursday in St.Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Some Roman Catholic priests will perform a rite of foot-washing to commemorate and reflect on Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his twelve disciples. The Gospel of John (13: 1-7) describes this act as a service to others despite your social position, a willingness to be closer to your neighbor. Though normally the task of a servant, Jesus performs this task as the host, despite the protest of his disciples. In doing so he invites them into an intimate fellowship with him, and modeling the behavior he wishes to teach to all humanity:

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Foot washing

Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Reverend Thumma Bala (right), an Indian Catholic bishop of the Archdioecese of Hyderabad, washes the feet of a parishioner during Maundy Thursday service. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Washing of the feet

Deacon Buruk Kidane (right) has his feet and hands washed by Reverend Gebrekiros at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matt McClain/Getty Images)

Washing of feet

Cardinal Roger Mahony washes the feet of 12 people, following the example of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 apostles, during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In England, a Royal Maundy Service is held on Holy Thursday. During the service, the king or queen gives Maundy money to his or her subjects — one coin for each man and woman equal of the royal’s years of birth.

Queen Elizabeth II Gives Maundy Money

Queen Elizabeth II (right) distributes the Maundy money to 86 men and 86 women during the Royal Maundy Service at York Minster in York, northern England on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Arthur Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)

In Jerusalem, processions of all sorts take place in the Old City on Holy Thursday.

Kawases Lead Holy Thursday Procession in the Old City

Kawases in traditional Ottoman outfits lead a procession of Roman Catholic clergymen along Jerusalem’s Old City streets during Holy Thursday on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Roman Catholic Clergy During a Holy Thursday Procession in the Old City

Roman Catholic clergymen walk along Jerusalem’ Old City streets during a Holy Thursday procession on April 5, 2012. Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Holy Thursday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Roman Catholic clergymen hold candles as they circle the Anointing Stone during the Holy Thursday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on April 5, 2012 ahead of Easter celebrations. Christians traditionally believe the church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.  (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Muslim Gatekeeper Locks the Door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Thursday

Raed Nuseibeh, the Muslim doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, closes the door after the Catholic Holy Thursday Easter procession. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Added in 2013…First the text from Pope Francis’ sermon this evening…

This is moving, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter understands nothing. He refuses but Jesus explains to him. Jesus, God did this, and He Himself explains it to the disciples… ‘Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do’.
It is the example set by Our Lord, it’s important for Him to wash their feet, because among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others. This is a symbol, it is a sign – washing your feet means I am at your service. And we are too, among each other, but we don’t have to wash each other’s feet each day. So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…sometimes I would get angry with one someone, but we must let it go and if they ask a favor of do it!

Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service. But it is a duty that comes from my heart and a duty I love. I love doing it because this is what the Lord has taught me. But you too must help us and help each other, always. And thus in helping each other we will do good for each other.

Now we will perform the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet and we must each one of us think, Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this, to serve us, to help us.

Vatican City (CNN) — The washing of feet was a radical act in Jesus’ time. It is no less radical in the modern era, with Pope Francis’ decision to break with the long-standing papal tradition of washing only priests’ feet, to include women and non-Christians in the symbolic ceremony.

Watch 38 to 45 minutes to see the foot washing unfold…

The controversy began on Holy Thursday last year when Pope Francis washed the feet of two women and two Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome. Before this, modern Popes had only ever washed the feet of 12 priests at the Vatican, during the Mass for the Last Supper.

This year, Pope Francis visited a home for the elderly and disabled, the Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi, to wash the feet of “12 disabled people of different ages, ethnicities and religious confessions,” during a special Lord’s Supper Mass, according to the Vatican.

Those chosen for the special honor included a 16-year-old boy from Cape Verde who was paralyzed in a diving accident last year, a 19-year-old man and a 39-year-old woman diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and two 86-year-olds with mobility problems.

The 78-year-old pope smiled at each of the people whose feet he washed, but clearly struggled to get up from his knees as he moved down the line; two assistants helped him to his feet. He appeared to tire towards the end of the short ceremony.

The tradition of the pontiff washing his priests’ feet is based on a passage of the Bible which says that Jesus attended to his disciples at the Last Supper, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:15)

Vatican ecclesiastical rules say that only “adult males” may have their feet washed at the Mass of the Last Supper (according to the Roman Missal, 2002), following the biblical tradition that Jesus washed the feet of 12 men.
The choice of 12 priests is also symbolic of Jesus’ institution of the priesthood, which according to Catholic tradition, occurred at the Last Supper.

For many years, however, bishops around the world received permission from the Vatican to wash the feet of women as well in their churches.

In fact, when the now-Pope was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he washed the feet of young mothers at a maternity hospital in 2005.
And it wasn’t the first — or last — time his choice would provoke debate: In 2001, he washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS patients at a hospice in the Argentinian capital, and in 2008, he washed the feet of recovering drug addicts at a rehab center in the city.

But until last year, no pope had dared to go against Vatican rules and choose anyone but priests for the Holy Thursday event. In choosing to change the practice, Francis is being as radical as Jesus was in his own time.
“According to the Talmud, the washing of feet was forbidden to any Jew except those in slavery,” the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says in its Holy Thursday Mandatum.

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“Jesus’ action of washing the feet of his disciples was unusual for his gesture went beyond the required laws of hospitality (washing of hands) to what was, in appearance, a menial task.”

By eschewing traditional practice, Pope Francis is emphasizing the spirit rather than the letter of the law — something Jesus himself did by breaking with Jewish tradition in washing his disciples’ feet.

And the spirit, or meaning, behind washing the feet of another person is one of humility and service — that through the act, the leader becomes a servant to his followers.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship says that foot-washing “represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve.'”

According to Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica, Francis’ gesture in 2013 was one of humility and service, intended to “embrace those on the fringes of society.”

From the beginning of his papacy, the pope himself has been on the “fringes” of long-standing Vatican protocol, for example by choosing to live outside of the papal palace and eschewing traditional papal garments and modes of transport.

In breaking the rules of foot-washing at the Vatican, the Pope is acknowledging what has been a practice in local churches for some time, and also reminding Catholics that the important thing is not whose foot is being washed, but the spirit behind that gesture.