"Tonight we wash one another’s hands in a deep spirit of love, preparing one another to enter into the service of God who came among us as a servant, and to love and serve one another as Christ loves and serves us."
A New Way to Practice Humble Service
Preparing for Holy Week last year, I thought about how uncomfortable the practice of foot washing is for so many. In the weeks before, I was asked numerous times “will we do the foot washing?” It seemed a genuine, if anxious, question and was often followed with commentary, both positive and negative. I became aware that Maundy Thursday had a real place in the community's worship life during Holy Week.
After some thought and reflection on the Scripture and liturgy for that night, I decided that it was time to think about the fact that this was an act of service and care in the time of Christ, but perhaps it doesn't have the same meaning today. In fact, the practice is overshadowed by contemporary worshippers' own anxiety about their feet.
Question: How can we express this servant ministry in our own contexts? How could “washing” connect the ancient practice with the here and now of our lives?
My response was in the form of a homily and in the new way of washing – hand washing – that we experienced that night. Excerpts from my homily are in italics, the whole text can be found here. In my congregation, both those who had been nervous about exposing their feet and those for whom the foot washing was a yearly lesson in humility participated in this new way to connect with Jesus and his disciples.
Practical Tips for Maundy Thursday Hand Washing
Prepare Your People
On Maundy Thursday, tonight, we remember when Jesus offered the humblest gesture of welcome to his friends. It was not the host’s role to wash the feet of dinner guests. This was the work of servants. Was Jesus washing the feet of his friends that they might be prepared to stand on the holy ground of his suffering?
- Discuss the change to the liturgy ahead of time with your staff and altar guild.
- Let your leaders know your reasons for trying out a new way to perform this old practice.
- Demonstrate how you think the practice should be performed. Say out loud how the bowls and towels will be moved from one person to the next.
- Remind everyone to breathe; change takes practice.
Prepare the Congregation
The disciples are no longer observers but participants. The disciples will stumble through the days ahead, uncertain and fearful, but mindful of all that Jesus has said and done. The events of this night begin the Passion of Christ. This is our story, our narrative. We too are the followers of Jesus.
- Some churches hand pick their Maundy Thursday participants. Ask the leaders in your congregation ahead of time to participate. They too need to know why you are changing things up a bit.
- Name the new hand washing practice in your service leaflet. Encourage in writing all who attend to come forward!
- Preach about hand washing in your homily or sermon.
- Invite with spoken words that help congregants understand this change, and open the invitation to all.
Tonight I invite you to wash one another’s hands in a spirit of love: the love that we bring to serving one another a meal; the love we bring when entering the hospital room of a sick friend.
- Create continuity by using the same pitchers, bowls and towels as you would for a foot washing.
- Ask the altar guild to place them in front of the altar rail, or in a highly visible location.
- Demonstrate with a slow, thorough washing and drying.
- Pass on the towel and bowl to the person whose hands you have blessed. Asking a few parish leaders to be the first in line will help this unfamiliar part move more smoothly.
In doing this, you can be certain that you will find the tomb empty and the proclamation of Resurrection on your lips and in your life.
The Rev. Canon Rosemari G. Sullivan, D.D. has served a number of parishes in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and as Secretary of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (1998-2005) and is currently Chair of the Haiti Partnership Committee of the Episcopal Church. Reflecting on making our rich liturgies accessible to all while retaining the depth and beauty of our tradition is an area of study and, when possible, experimentation.