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.