Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Maundy Thursday in the Context of COVID: Reflecting on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The scale of COVID is soaring high, with 1,444,942 recorded cases around the world, 83,110 of deaths recorded and 309, 113 cases of recovery as of 8th April 2020. There are many others who are not on the statistics, losing lives or infected by this virus or with no medical facilities available and many others who are uncountable, struggling with issues of fear, anxiety, mental and social well-being these days. In such a context, what is the significance of Maundy Thursday for us today? To put it other way, when the world around us has become an infectious space, what is the message of Maundy Thursday?
The text for Maundy Thursday on our lectionary is from John, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives them new commandment to love another just as Jesus has loved them. Jesus’ washing the feet of disciples is an epitome of a servant king’s characteristics, which Jesus has set as an example to follow. There are six pointers that we gather from the symbols used in this passage. Firstly, Jesus removes his outer garment (4v), which is an act of giving up his privilege, by which he is building that bond of friendship with his disciples. Secondly, Jesus ties a towel around his waist (4v), which is an act of identifying with the least, last and lost of the community, by which act Jesus instils confidence among his friends. Thirdly, Jesus poured water (5v), which is a symbol of a preparation invoking Holy Spirit for healing, for water cleanses the foot-steps of his disciples, an act of comfort for them. Fourthly, Jesus pours the waters in a basin (5v), which is a symbol for containing the waters of healing, representing spaces and places of hope. Fifthly, Jesus serving at the table, which is an act of hospitality challenging us to reflect on longer tables and lesser fences, for all are invited at Jesus’ table. Sixthly, Jesus’ supper, an invitation to join with him for tea/supper, emphasising on eating together, celebrating inclusion and friendship in that eating, and also challenging us to become bread of life like him to feed several hungry people around us.
When I reflect on this act of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples in the context of COVID, I see Jesus in the acts of our doctors, nurses, carers, people working at supermarkets, other key workers, who are washing the feet of several infected and affected people by serving them. In that act of nursing, in that act of caring, in that act of serving, Jesus’ story of washing the feet of his disciples comes alive. These key workers are not washing the feet of the suffering people as an act of ritual foot washing, nor as an act of a tradition, but as an act of saving lives. Jesus’ words to Peter as in verse 7, “you do not know realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” reverberate in the actions of all our key workers today. Like Jesus, these key workers are “washing the feet of the people” (serving people) voluntarily, as part of their call and vocation, as part of their love for humanity, even at the expense of risking their lives. For me, God in Jesus is at work through these key workers who are struggling and striving for healing to this our world today. So, then the question that arises is, what is it to those who are not key workers? Is not God working through them? Yes, God is working through others as well, by those who have a love for the entire humanity and who are willing to serve others during these crisis times. In a context when washing of hands is emphasised time and again during this COVID times, “washing the feet of others” can mean offering care to the creation and humanity.
It is here, that Jesus’ new commandment that he gave to his disciples in this text finds its relevance today, which is to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Many have asked me is the fear of death above the faith in God today? There is no easy and straight answer to it, but faith in God helps us to understand that God is journeying with us in our uncertainties and striving to heal this world. My faith is there is no place or situation where God’s presence is absent, for me God is present everywhere and every time, and God’s presence comes even more forcefully during these times of crisis. So, when we are asked to stay at home during these crisis times, that is an expression for us to show our love for our humanity and creation, so that the virus is contained and the chain of the virus is broken. I do understand the social and mental well-being issues linked up with such isolation, but even Jesus would have done the same and would have reached to people in his own different ways. So, love for one another at a time like this is to stay at home and help contain this virus. By not listening to such a call and by being careless is not following the commandment of Jesus.
Washing the feet and this new commandment of Jesus to love one another are so linked that serving other is love in action, and love for the other makes to serve the other.
In recognising that the world around us has become an infectious space, mere re-petitions of what we have always done, like foot-washing of other people at churches and now at homes and partaking in holy communion on Maundy Thursdays might not be sufficient, for by repeating the same rituals at a crisis like this as faith communities might put the relevance of the gospel of Jesus Christ at risk. By repeating things what we have always done, we are discounting the fact that the world around us is an infectious space. When the world around is changing, should not our faith imaginations and interpretations change? Re-imagining the words and acts of Jesus for our times today, is a way forward to keep our faith in Jesus relevant for us. Jesus at this Maundy Thursday did not repeat the act of Passover exactly, but reimagined that meal relevant to their context, particularly on his journey to the Cross, by washing the feet of his disciples and giving new commandment of love.Jesus removed his outer garment, tied a towel to his waist, poured water in the basin, washed the feet of his disciples, served at the table and ate supper with his friends. This Maundy Thursday, perhaps it is time for us to take off the outer garment of rituals, tie a towel of humility, pout waters of healing, wash the feet as offering service to one another, serve the table by helping our neighbours and engage in eating with Jesus by trying to think and feed the homeless people through the various charities that are serving them.
Wishing you all a meaningful Maundy Thursday.
Rev. Dr. Raj Bharat Patta
8th April 2020
 For more on this idea of the infectious space and social distancing, read Peter Scott’s reflection on COVID at http://lincolntheologicalinstitute.com/blog/covid-19-going-the-social-distance.html