The ethical reason that Jesus did not wear gloves

arguments for easter

Service is a concept which our age has distorted into a form of buying and selling. Today's Maundy rituals point to an older reality, argues Martyn Percy

MAUNDY Thursday, probably the oddest day in the Christian year, is a day for ritual. Clergy today attend their cathedral and renew their vows. Oils are blessed, for the year's baptisms, confirmations and anointing of the sick. The Queen walks amongst a hand-picked group of pensioners and disperse alms in the form of Maundy money. Tonight altars are stripped and the lights extinguished gradually in preparation for Good Friday.

In many churches, the celebration of the Eucharist is accompanied by the priest washing the feet of members of the congregation, as Jesus did at the Last Supper in John's Gospel. The ritual, like many of the other ceremonies of the day, is about service: to the poor, to one another, to the sick and dying. Here, on Maundy Thursday, even before the death is remembered and re-enacted, the first fruits of the Gospel are already in evidence.

Yet rituals generally operate at a distance from reality. Time, and the demand for the safety of ceremony, often rob the event being commemorated of its original power. Once upon a time, monarchs washed the feet of their subjects. The poor, the lepers and the sick would queue for "The King's Touch". Today, the ceremony is carefully choreographed. The Queen wears gloves, and gives out specially minted coins. (Presumably this avoids any deduction in benefit claims for the recipients).

It is not easy to get inside the ordinariness and originality of Jesus's gesture at the last supper. Jesus washes his disciples' feet because the events of Holy Week have gradually stripped him of his power and status as a teacher and healer. The ritual he performs is an enactment of how low he has sunk. Tonight he is a servant at table: his face is focused on feet, his eyes cast low. The darkness of Good Friday is already upon him.

Yet strangely, Jesus is also setting an example for his disciples. The footwashing is a gesture of deep and abiding friendship and citizenship: "You also ought to wash one another's feet". This is a final reminder from Jesus to his disciples: service is the hallmark of a genuine community and of faith in Christ. Just as the poor will inherit the kingdom of heaven, so will the Church be led by the servants of the servants.

We live in an age in which service has become an industry, costed and accounted for. Yet Maundy Thursday reminds us that service of one another lies at the root of the Gospel and of society. No one is so great that they have graduated to a status of being above offering service. Neither should anyone always be the servant. The mutuality of Jesus's act in the last supper shows that service lies at the heart of communities, even those about to be desolated and dispersed.

In a church riddled with hierarchies, it is no accident that Jesus is often made in our preferred image: Christ the King. The order of heaven reflects the order of earth. Servanthood is not valued for its own sake, but only as a path to power. Christ is celebrated as the ruler over all, and the Church can therefore govern and manage on his behalf. Yet the footwashing story reminds us that an aloof Jesus who reigns on high is an inversion of the Gospel. In our fragmented society we badly need a new ethic of service, in which all citizens participate. The act of Jesus shows us that we too must be willing to stoop low, humble ourselves, and take on the mantle of service.

In his seminal After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that our society no longer speaks a shared moral language, and has no sense of what the "common good" might be. When we speak of goodness or service today, all we are doing is handling the fragments of an old system of thought, but without understanding that they are fragments: the vessel is broken. The Maundy Thursday rituals, in this view, are echoes of the past which now lies in pieces in the present.

Yet those same rituals are pregnant with longing for a future. MacIntyre beckons us forward, to a Good Friday and beyond. What society now needs, he says, is not a programme or a prescription, but rather persons who will help us to recover new forms of community that will endure through the new Dark Ages "that are already upon us". MacIntyre hopes for a new "and no doubt very different St Benedict" who will achieve this.

But in actual fact, any true servant would do.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most