The day, also known as Holy Thursday, occurs during Holy Week and falls on the Thursday before Good Friday. The term ‘Maundy’ derives from the Latin for ‘new commandment’ – mandatum novum – which the Lord Jesus Christ (according to John’s Gospel) gave his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’ that Christians should do as He has done.
Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus Christ’s last supper and the initiation of the sacrament of Holy Communion (also known as ‘The Lord’s Supper’ or ‘The Eucharist’). It also celebrates the humility of the Lord Jesus as during the Last Supper, he knelt down and one by one washed his disciples’ feet. He did this to show his disciples and to all Christians how to serve one another with humility and love, being willing even to stoop to the most menial tasks.
Some churches observe Maundy Thursday by having Holy Communion, and by having foot washing as part of the service where the clergy wash the feet of members of the congregation. And it needs to be said that most people whom I have seen at these services usually have feet that are clean, having already washed them before attending the service. Whereas Jesus washed 24 feet that really needed to be washed.
History of Foot washing.
My understanding of this practice in the church was that it became common in the church in the fourth century, and involved the bishop within the church washing the feet of the priests and acolytes. In Monasteries, the abbot of a monastery would wash the feet of all the monks. While in Rome, the Pope would wash the feet of selected Cardinals. This was seen as fulfilling the mandate that the greatest among the brethren will be the servant of all. It appears to have been practiced in the early centuries of post-apostolic Christianity though the evidence is scant. For example, Tertullian (145–220) mentions the practice in his De Corona, but gives no details as to who practiced it or how it was practiced. It was practiced by the Church at Milan (ca. A.D. 380), is mentioned by the Council of Elvira(A.D. 300), and is even referenced by Augustine (ca. A.D. 400).
As for whether this practice occurred in the church in the 1st century or prior to the 4th century there is no evidence that I am aware of. In my view, it is most like that the disciples of the Lord Jesus understood Jesus commandment in John 15:15 (which you can read below) is not so much about the act of washing each other’s feet per se but rather the attitude of humility, servant heartedness and agapé love behind it, and it is these virtues that God’s people are commanded to have.
1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.