We did wash feet during the time of social distancing – March 31, 2020

I’m imagining a year from now when a normal Holy Week presents and I am confronted with, once again, preaching on footwashing during a moderately attended Maundy Thursday worship service with those who willingly share in this ancient act and those who are reluctant or embarrassed. Knowing that this year we could not wash feet much less share in the actual Sacrament of Holy Communion during this time of COVID-19, the deadly strain of what sounded more poetic when simply called the Coronavirus, I imagine how my Maundy Thursday message will differ a year from now. Playing on the word “remember” as in “do this in remembrance of me” from the words of the Eucharist Prayer makes sense this year when preached in an empty church with the Last Supper stained glass window as background. This work of art suggests that we are members of the Body of Christ (think the Apostle Paul writing that we are but an arm or a leg and Jesus is the head) and, as such, are connected with Christ. The window is a painful reminder when we come forward to be re-membered, that is reconnected, when we receive Holy Communion, it still seems hollow when we cannot gather to actually receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The window, and the wonderful prayer for Communion with Christ when not able to receive from the Prayerbook for the Armed Forces, just doesn’t seem filling.

Next year, however, I have the opportunity to preach within the context of what it meant to be without. Upon hearing such a claim, all present would naturally assume on Maundy Thursday in that first year of supposed return to normal life, that I’m referring to the moment in the Upper Room when Jesus gathered his friends and changed the meaning of the Passover meal into what theologians identify as the institution of the Eucharist. I do mean to preach on what we were without during our stay-at-home 2020 Holy Week. However, I will not focus on the Eucharist but rather the fact that we missed the opportunity to enact the footwashing. This outward shared expression, especially powerful when all are invited to wash feet, makes connection to the passage read on Maundy Thursday from the Gospel according to John all the more meaningful as the footwashing ceremony closes with these words from pages 274/275 of The Book of Common Prayer:

The Lord Jesus, after he had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, “Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.”

Peace is my last gift to you, my own peace I now leave with you; peace which the world cannot give, I give to you.

I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.

Peace is my last gift to you, my own peace I now leave with you; peace which the world cannot give, I give to you.

By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: That you have love for one another.

Indeed, I will focus on the footwashing and what Jesus taught in that action. And I will point out that while we gave up reconnecting with Jesus through the Holy Eucharist during the time of social distancing, we lived for weeks on end in the tension inherent in the invitation to wash feet on Maundy Thursday. While some of the Facebook humor we endured claimed we gave up church for Lent in 2020, we acted as Jesus would have us act when we adhered to the humility found in the discipline of social distancing. Just as it is a paradox of the life lived in faith to lose your life to gain your life, we had love for one another when we kept six feet of separation. As we moved through the embarrassment and reluctance so obvious to anyone willing to endure social distancing, we washed feet. Thus we did as Jesus commanded, and lived these words: By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: That you have love for one another. By washing feet in this manner, we found the peace that the world cannot give.

The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas is an Episcopal Priest with 31 years-experience who is a member of the Interim Ministry Network Faculty and, through WCT.coach, is of use to communities of faith as workshop leader, executive coach, transition consultant / interim rector, pastor, and podcast host (The Of Use Podcast). He writes this reflection while caring for the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Wilson NC while engaged in the social distance (footwashing) that keeps him home 84 miles away in New Bern NC. 

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