Today, in the Christian calendar, is Maundy Thursday – remembered as the anniversary of Jesus’ “Last Supper” when he broke bread with his disciples after taking it on himself to wash their feet. Foot washing, in hot desert countries had a significance less obvious than here in Northern Europe where we tend to like keeping ourselves to ourselves except when we are throwing off all our clothes for a one night stand or a boozy skinny dipping session on a southern Spanish holiday.
Here in England, our monarch, Queen Elizabeth puts on a sensible coat and a silly hat and goes to a cathedral to give purses of coins to worthy old people. She would be horrified at the thought that her ancestors actually followed Jesus’s example and got down on their knees to wash the feet of the common people. Whether we like it or not, our ancient aristocracy prefers to keep itself aloof even on a day such as today.
For the rest of us who don’t really recognise the coming holiday as a religious festival, maybe we should pause and think about some of the things that we have lost when we ditched our common religious culture here in western Europe.
For one thing, I miss the music. Easter has some of the best music ever written – with composers like J..S. Bach, Handel, Tallis and Palestrina pouring out their musical souls for a festival that most of us ignore.
I wonder too, if we are not missing out on the symbolism of that washing of the feet that Her Majesty, as titular head of the Church of England, so primly ignores. How magnificent it would be to see her get her hands wet in order to show that human beings are to be cherished and loved and that no part of them should be spurned as unclean. The ancient Christian church might have had a deeper regard for the human body than we, the supposedly liberated modern Westerners can ever pretend to feel.
One day, I hope, we will be able to see and love each other as real flesh and blood whoever we are and whatever we look like. We don’t need a religion to wish for that.
So, for today, here is the deeply moving Maundy Thursday music by Palestrina, the first part of his Lamentations of Jeremiah performed by Pro Cantione Antiqua with some images of the ritual of feet washing. There is an Easter message in there for all of us.