Perhaps the simplest way to explain what “Maundy” means is to say that the word comes from the same Latin root as the word “mandate.” It refers to the Lord’s “command” to his followers. “Which command,” you ask? Traditionally, this one:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34, NIV)This may seem confusing to some, because if you look up the context of this passage, you'll find that these words are not spoken in the context of Jesus’ last supper as we commonly understand it. Although there is a meal involved (and bread is specifically mentioned), and the chapter does suggest that Judas is about to betray Jesus, the usual statements about the bread and the wine being Jesus’ body and blood aren’t here at all (the gospel of John does have teaching about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, but it’s in a totally different context). Instead, the meal is accompanied by a scene where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
In my experience, the foot washing sequence has been neglected in favor of the bread and wine, and although I’ve seen efforts to reclaim foot washing as a part of the Maundy Thursday observance, this seems to be “optional,” whereas Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Last Supper, or some other name depending on one’s tradition) is the focal point.
This brings us back to the question of “which command” of Jesus is behind Maundy Thursday. If the Last Supper is the focal point, the command that is most likely emphasized is “do this in remembrance of me.” Remembering Jesus is a good thing, but it’s rather vague in terms of suggesting a response. It runs the risk of reinforcing the dominant individualistic mindset of so much of American Evangelicalism. Does our remembering Jesus mean anything to anyone else? A focus on the foot washing is more likely to emphasize Jesus’ command that we should love one another. Perhaps one can argue that this is vague, as well. How should we love one another? We may have shifted our attention from ourselves and onto others, but how do we show our love?
I’m sure that there are many, many answers to that question, but the context of the passage at least gives us an example from which to start. We can love others by washing their feet. If a literal foot washing perhaps doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it would have done to people who walked everywhere they went via dirty roads, it shouldn’t be too hard to think about possible ways in which we can meet similar needs of people today, and thus show Jesus’ love for them through our actions.
And in doing this, we're obeying the command to "remember" Jesus, as well. Seems like a win-win.