Just before Easter last week I had the rare privilege of commemorating Jesus’s last Passover Seder, the eve of his crucifixion, during which he transformed the traditional blessings over bread (ha-motzi) and wine (ha-Gafen) into the Eucharist, symbols – in the Episcopalian church I attended - of his body and blood.
Reverend Canon Mark Shier, Rector Emeritus of St. Andrew's, Fullerton, serving as interim rector at in Studio City, invited me to join the congregation for an evening service that included communion, agapé supper, foot washing and stripping of the altar.
The members welcomed me sweetly and I was moved by the quiet way they moved from each stage of the celebration to the next. Maundy Thursday is celebrated traditionally at St. Michael’s and I was especially interested in witnessing the foot washing.
As Christian holy week and Jewish Passover coincided this year, and I tend to see all religious observance through Jewish goggles, I could not help being struck by the similarities in our practices.
The blessings of wine and bread, of course, begin every Jewish observance from Shabbat to Yom Kippur. The reading of Exodus during the service was the same reading going on at every Passover table during the week’s Seders. We wash hands at the Seder table but Father Mark reminded me that foot washing was an ordinary custom of hospitality in the ancient Middle East. A guest shod in sandals would arrive at your door with dusty feet. It was only polite to offer a freshening up.
But on Maundy Thursday, the ritual is evocative of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as described in the Gospel of John, chapter 13.
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Said Father Mark, “That’s always been a symbol for us that a person is a true leader only if he or she is a true servant.”
When the foot washing was completed, the congregants stripped the altar in preparation for the mourning that was to follow on the day of crucifixion. The silent clearing of ornamentation was reminiscent of preparations for sitting shiva, the Jewish period of grief and mourning when pleasure and adornment are eschewed and mirrors are covered.
Upon conclusion of the final prayer, the sanctuary remained dark and celebrants filed out. But the chapel remained open for a nightlong vigil by those who wished to stay and meditate.