Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner
In his diary for the 4th April 1667, Samuel Pepys writes that ‘My wife . . . had been today at White-hall to the Maundy, . . . but the King did not wash the poor people’s feet himself, but the Bishop of London did it for him.’ The Maundy service, attended by the monarch, survives – but the part of the service which commemorated Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet at the last supper by having the king do the same, was already on the way out it seems, way back then – and James II is reputed to have been the very last monarch to perform the ritual in person a few years later.
It will perhaps seem a bit tardy, 445 years on, to regret the passing of an aspect of the Maundy ritual – and in any case, rituals have a rather bad name: we sometimes describe an event or gesture as ‘no more than a ritual’ to suggest that it is somewhat empty or hollow. But this is to ignore the continuing presence and power of ritual, which is pretty much universal and is not limited to religious contexts – shaking hands is one simple ritual; graduating from college or university is another. But there are other rituals which are a bit more weighty and powerful than these. What these rituals do is to represent to us, by means of a sort of enactment or performance, the way things should and could be, rather than the way they are. And what such rituals achieve, is to insinuate into our minds the possibility of a new order of things, radically different from the everyday order which we know.
The repetition of Christ’s action of taking on the foot-washing duties of a servant or slave is such a ritual. It enacts or performs the setting aside of established expectations and power relations. It holds up to our imaginations a world based on a new commandment - and the Maundy ceremony takes its name from the Latin of Christ’s words on this occasion: ‘A new commandment (mandatum novum) I give you, that ye love one another.’ ‘Mandatum’ became Maundy, and the yearly ritual remembering this ‘new commandment’ gave its name to Maundy Thursday.
At a time of increasing inequalities in wealth and power both within and between nations, we have every reason, I think, to wish that the ceremony had survived in its earlier form – though with the proviso perhaps, that it should now be performed by those to whom power and prestige has since passed: by prime ministers, bankers, media tycoons, chief executives of FTSE 100 companies and the like. The point of the ritual remains, however, and was not made for the sake of its chief participant alone – it was meant to confront each and every one who witnessed it with the spectacle of privilege and power being set aside for the sake of the greater honour of serving even those with very dirty feet. And that really does involve imagining a world quite different from the one we typically know and choose to inhabit.