Later today, the Queen will meet 92 men and 92 women at St George’s Chapel in Windsor and hand them each a leather purse of Maundy Money.
The Royal Maundy was introduced by King John in 1213. In those days, the ceremony involved foot-washing, because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on that very first Maundy Thursday in Jerusalem. In the Royal Maundy, before the monarch got anywhere near a poor person’s feet, there were always several pre-washes by B-list dignitaries, and the flowers to mask the smell are still ceremonially carried today.
After the foot-washing, the poor were given food, clothes, and as many pence as there were years in the monarch’s reign. The monarch would then take off their gown, and give it to someone who looked particularly needy. Until Elizabeth I wasn’t happy to part with one of her fancy outfits, and gave the poor money instead. The gifts of clothing stopped too, because the poor used to take their clothes off during the service, and swap with each other until they found things to fit, which made the bishops a bit nervous. They’ve now stopped the food as well, because the poor were caught selling it outside the church immediately after the service for less than it was worth.
All that remains, is the cash. There are actually two purses. One purse contains £5.50 in ordinary money: £1 in lieu of the monarch’s gown, £3 for the gift of clothing, and £1.50 instead of the food. The other purse contains the Maundy Money, the specially minted silver coins up to the value equivalent to the monarch’s age.
It’s a bizarre piece of annual pageantry, but it mirrors a shift in society, too; money instead of action. Now that we have a welfare state and pay our taxes, maybe we feel we don’t really need to bother so much with the poor, because the government and the charity sector does that for us.
So I wonder whose feet you’d be happy to wash? In Jesus’ time, the custom of foot-washing was about showing hospitality to guests. We often take care of our children and the vulnerable in more personal ways than this, and we do it because we love them enough to overcome our aversion. So perhaps the point of the foot-washing is not really about the feet, but about the quality of our love and care for others.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.