Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, Jesus' last meal with his disciples on the evening before he died. Our word 'Maundy' comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning 'commandment', and echoes what Jesus said that evening after washing the disciples' feet:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
His washing of their feet had shown this love very vividly. Hot, tired and dirty feet would have been normal after journeying, and to wash them on arrival anywhere was answering a real need; but this was usually a task for servants. Jesus took this task on himself; and then he said: 'If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.' To care for others especially in menial tasks is to show real love.
Jesus's words have more point and poignancy if we remember that when he spoke them he knew that one of the disciples was about to betray him: one of those whose feet he had washed, one of those who had shared the meal with him. There could hardly be a starker contrast: Judas plotting the death of his Lord and Master; Jesus giving his life for us all, Judas included. After Jesus had spoken of his betrayal, Judas left the room. St John's Gospel adds: 'And it was night.'
The Last Supper was also the moment when Jesus bequeathed to us the Eucharist. With his death in view, he made the shared bread and wine the sign of his continuing presence with us, the presence of the crucified but risen Christ, and therefore the presence of everything his death and resurrection offers us: 'my body for you ... my blood poured out for you'.
Perhaps surprisingly, St John does not mention the bread and wine in his Gospel account of the Last Supper. Instead he has first the washing of the feet, then the 'new commandment', and finally the long discourse about Jesus's continued presence with us in the Spirit. The reason surely is that all these express the deepest reality of the Eucharist, the meaning of what Jesus did at the Last Supper and what we do now at every Mass. Christ's death, which we commemorate in the Eucharist, was a self-offering to the Father, a sacrifice to fulfil all sacrifices, offered out of love, to overcome sin and the disunity that follows from it. It was the supreme instance of that love which by word and example he had commanded us to have.
His love achieved the definitive conquest of sin because it is the love of God-made-man; and it has therefore forged the unity of all 'the children of God who had been scattered abroad' (John 11:52), a unity into which the whole human race is invited. That unity is expressed visibly in the Church, though not yet perfectly, for we are not yet perfect. But the constant celebration of the Eucharist is a constant reminder to us of what Jesus offers: unity with him and with one another in his Body. That is why the Eucharist is called 'the sacrament of unity'. And it constantly renews for us the challenge to live his same, practical, inclusive, self-sacrificing, unifying love, precisely because his love is for all, and if we are members of his Body we cannot settle for less. A veneration of Christ present in the Eucharist which does not spur us on towards this practical, active love for others, is leaving out at least half the story.
Though the washing of feet was regularly done by a servant, there was one exception: within the Jewish context a wife would wash her husband's feet. This was not because she was a servant, but because she and her husband were one body. 'A man leaves father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh' (Genesis 2:24). Paul says the same: 'Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies'. And 'Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her' (Ephesians 5:25,28). So in washing the disciples' feet, Jesus was not only showing us a practical example but also giving greater depth to what we mean by saying we are 'Body of Christ'.
One unobtrusive little rubric in the missal for Maundy Thursday gives point to all this: 'At the beginning of the liturgy of the eucharist, there may be a procession of the faithful with gifts for the poor'. Granted the meaning of this celebration, that phrase 'may be' should surely be understood as 'ought to be'. To do this in a clear and obvious way (e.g. the procession) would enable us straightaway to express something of what Maundy Thursday is all about.