The feet of the disciples were filthy, covered in the grime of the streets. Jesus, secure in his identity and mission, stripped off his outer robe and knelt to wash them with care. As dinner progressed, Jesus began his final discourse, distilling his message down to its core: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Only from the other side of the cross do we recognize the weight of this command. To love one another as we have been loved by God in Christ is nothing short of giving ourselves entirely for the sake of the other.
This Thursday, Christians around the world will honor this command of Jesus by celebrating Maundy Thursday, though our recognition of this sacred moment this year will look nothing like the past. Few will gather corporately. Digital church engagement will no doubt be meaningful but no one has yet discerned how to wash the feet of another through a screen. Instead, we will be at home, loving our neighbor by following the command to #stayhome.
How strange that to love our neighbor we must abstain from interacting with them in the flesh. Maintain social distance, and for the love of God, don’t go to Grandma’s house. These are all wise admonitions, but is that it? Is that the extent of what it means to love our neighbors in the age of COVID-19? Might the call to a Maundy Thursday depth of love ask a bit more of us?
The comfortable lie of the hour is that this disease is the great equalizer. It is comfortable because it allows many of us to rest in the easy chair of passivity. It will strike who it will strike, so just stay home. It is a lie because the facts directly contradict the misnomer. In a recent Twitter thread , New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones cited statistic after statistic demonstrating the disparate impact of COVID-19 on not only the socio-economically disenfranchised but more specifically black Americans who are less likely to have adequate healthcare and far more likely to work in the service industry, jobs deemed essential with no work from home option.
While many of us, including myself, complain about the inconvenience of working from home with high end laptops and high internet speeds, all while resting cozily in the safety net of a reliable paycheck, health insurance, and a savings account, an Instacart worker is braving the aisles of Kroger to fill a grocery cart with food and extra snacks for our insatiable children. All the while, “our shopper” is wondering if her kids at home are actually doing their homework or raiding the cupboard for snacks, knowing she cannot afford to replace them this pay period. With a heavy hand and heavier heart, she tosses the four boxes of granola bars we requested into the basket.
Is this what Jesus meant when he called his followers to love one another as he loved them? To mind our own business, but tip well? If we are honest, this crisis unveils more than our American proclivity for bucking authority or our passion for dining out. It reveals our tendency to love others only as far as it does not impede on our well-being, inconvenience us to any degree, or challenge our worldview.
The issue is not just with Instacart. It is also not merely with our personal behaviors and attitudes, though we do well to submit both to purifying gaze of the spirit. The issue is with systems that declare with their very underpinnings that some lives are more valuable than others — systems that determine certain work as worthy of human dignity and others as not. Individual acts of mercy will certainly ease the suffering of the struggle but it will not end the struggle.
Is Maundy Thursday love enough to chip away at these structural sins? Is it enough to dismantle chains of systemic evil? I believe it is.
Maundy Thursday love wooed Jesus to the cross and held him there, to set humankind free from sin and death. This love, infused by the power of the Holy Spirit, empowered people like Sojourner Truth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and innumerable others history has forgotten to speak and act for shalom, God’s transformative peace for all humankind.
Maundy Thursday love, when practiced boldly and doggedly, offers a healing balm, and then throws a wrench in the grinding wheel of injustice.
Maundy Thursday love declares that every human is in fact worthy of dignity, care, compassion, and safety regardless of who they are or where the come from.
Maundy Thursday love fights for equal access to technology for children, regardless of their school district, and goes to the mat for a more equitable healthcare system.
Maundy Thursday love does not resist the privilege conversation in defensiveness and shame. Rather, recognizing our identity and vocation as children of God, we face our privilege with courage and put it to work for the voiceless.
When COVID-19 is but a strange, traumatic memory to pass on to our grandchildren, will we be able to say with humility and honesty that we learned to love as Jesus loved us? When the dust settles and life returns to normalcy, will our corporate life reflect the self-giving, sacrificial love of our crucified and risen Lord in how we educate our children, care of the elderly, and tend to the sick?
Could we allow this moment in time to return us to the quiet room with our servant King Jesus as he kneels to wash our dusty feet? Could we surrender our pride, our self-importance, and addiction to self-preservation to pick up a basin and towel in love for the other?
May it be said of us that this moment returned the people of God to Maundy Thursday love.