Maundy Thursday came around after Jesus had upset the money changers and in other ways acted in some disturbing and unusual fashions, - several so called miracles, and generally doing things unexpected of a traditional savior figure who was expected to come, within Jewish traditions, as a warrior Messiah divinely commissioned to vanquish the enemy of Israel. This was of course, at that time, congruous with the common role of Kingship. Since antiquity a good King was one who slayed the enemy and relieved his subjects of the fear of the enemies deadly design upon their culture.
Jesus is about to upset this expectation and introduce a new order of life with the events following through Easter. As a first act of revealing this order he calls the disciples to assemble at the upper room for a Thursday meal among the friends. This in itself was not unusual for a Thursday night. For some time already, fervent and deeply religious friends had used Thursdays to gather before the Sabbath in what was called the Chabura. The Chabura was an extra-family affair. (See Gregory Dix “The Shape of the Liturgy”, Google Books search. URL: http://bit.ly/HjShXu)
According to Dix Jesus transforms this gathering and its format into what becomes the mass. And as he states; this Chabura was a Thursday affair.
On this occasion Jesus symbolically introduces his new unworldly order of things by bidding first Peter to, presumably, remove his ‘sandals’ so the Lord he can wash his, what in Jerusalem at that time, would be both a pair of dirty and somewhat smelly, feet. Given that Peter has been privy to some secrets regarding Jesus’ person, and has been brought up in the Jewish culture, he finds this embarrassing and refuses to comply. Where upon Jesus says to him that unless Peter removes his footwear he cannot be his disciple.
As much as we later in the narrative learns that Jesus indeed is associated with a kingship of a mysterious sort, it is perfectly understandable that this is actually perceived as both preposterous and shocking. A King or a Messiah washing his follower’s feet! This is a reversal of all modes of perceived kingship. It is what we today would perhaps understand as an act of carnivalesque reversal of the course of power. As indeed it was. A new order of Kingship, a profound and transforming service from the top and down, that went way beyond Plato’s Aristos (the noble civil servant of The Republic’s social revolution).
To look for this new order of things we may look to the so called Didache (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didache), a text nearly as old as the earliest gospels, wherein this new order, the way of life is juxtaposed with the way of death. ‘The Way’ was one of the earliest self-designations of the Jesus movement. (It is symptomatic of the later developments of the Church that this text would fall out of favor, but that is a topic for discussion in another time and another place.)
As we will see in the following events, the punishment for exposing and standing up to the cult of death was of course: Death.
We may however, consider that Jesus and his group were not set on this being the consequence and outcome of the affair that was to follow, though the challenge to both the Roman and Jewish power was skirting close to a death sentence. Much has been said and speculated about the guilt of the Romans or the Jews, but again, according to the differentiations Didache (or “The Two Ways”, as it is also called) both powers were compromised.
(The other event associated with Maundy Thursday, Judas and the institution of the Eucharist will be touched upon tomorrow, but suffice it now to say that the way both powers were compromised may cast a different light on the task asked of Judas Iscariot.)