Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10) Psalm 116:1, 10-17 I Cor. 11:23-26 John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The remembrance of Holy Thursday is rich with imagery. Of all the days in the liturgical year, Holy Thursday may be the most impacting. It gives us a glimpse into both the best and the worst of what we are feeling. It sends us reeling between great joy and great confusion. The visions bring to mind and to heart the holy eating, drinking and storytelling that is recalled in the Passover celebration of the Exodus from Egypt found in the Old Testament reading.
John’s account of the Last Supper differs from the synoptic gospels in timing and emphasis. In the synoptics, Jesus eats the Passover meal with the twelve and following the meal institutes the Lord’s Supper. In John, the last meal is before the Passover, and there is not account of the institution of the Eucharist. For John, Jesus does not eat the Passover, he is the Passover, bleeding and dying as the Passover lamb.
John’s Gospel sets the scene, we see the disciples, their preparation and response to Jesus washing their feet. He doesn’t start with announcements or a lot of fanfare. Jesus simply rose from his place, grabbed a towel, poured water in a basin and began. Picture yourself in the room. The meal is finished. Conversation has been lively, but now is hushed as Jesus moves about. They are wondering what Jesus is up to. We see the disciples reclining at the table, gathered in the upper room. Their faces reflect their love for Jesus, but their eyes betray their uncertainty. In this scene, replayed year after year, who do you identify with? Who touches your heart?
Some of us may identify with Jesus or with Judas and we are flooded with emotion. Some may identify with Simon Peter. Who knows what the other disciples felt when Jesus took their feet in his hands and began to wash them. Peter is honest enough not to pretend that he could even think about letting it happen. Peter’s horror of Jesus being a servant to him, deeply touches us. It is one thing to look up to Jesus in prayer as The Holy One, Master, Lord, Messiah. It is something totally different to look down on Jesus, to see him looking up at us, and to allow him to even touch our dirty feet, let alone to wash them.
In his actions, Jesus models a new kind of authority, a servant-leadership that ministers to the members rather than waiting to be served by them. He does what is seen as slave work. He, the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God washes the feet of the community. He does not use authority for His own gain. He gives Himself to save His community, to free it to function, not to dominate it.
The foot-washing throws light on how we see the cross. The issue is whether we will accept the absolute and unconditional love, allow it to envelop and penetrate us wholly. After Jesus has demeaned himself in performing the menial task of a slave, Judas’ disgust with him becomes total and he goes off into the night to betray Jesus. Judas had difficulty understanding Jesus’ mission from the beginning. A true King would have power, wealth and authority. He knew that a true King would not act this way.
During the foot-washing, Peter has to face his resistance to being served. Perhaps, you and I have to face our discomfort in being served, to being open to receive this intimate act of kindness and to let go of being in charge. It seems so easy to give of ourselves and such a challenge to receive such a kindness. Though foot-washing belongs to another age and time, the symbolism still resonates with us to disturb and provoke emotions.
When are we, in modern society washed? As helpless babies, we are washed by our mothers, on whose love and care we are totally dependent. We entrust ourselves to the care of nurses and caregivers, when we are sick and unable to move or care for ourselves. Otherwise, we can pretty much fend for ourselves. Letting another wash us raises the issue of dependence and the need for trust – placing ourselves into the care of another.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” There is no sentimentality in Jesus as he looks up from the basin. His words are strong and leave no room for compromise or discussion. Today, on Maundy Thursday, taken from the Latin word mandatum – the mandate, we hear, “You must love one another….For I have set an example, that you also should do what I have done.” So, in preparation for tomorrow, Jesus asks us to understand our discomfort to being served and what it reveals in us, to us. If we will not allow him to serve us, then we cut ourselves off from him. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into the depths of this moment, we see with clarity that Jesus shows us our human fallenness in Peter.
Jesus comes to us bearing all the unnerving signs of life lived within the embrace of unconditional love. Peter is jolted by Jesus’ stern words into saying, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head” (John 13:9). His own reluctance to being reduced to helplessness cannot be canceled except through the shattering of his heroism in his threefold denial of Jesus, that is to come. Peter’s humanity is our humanity.
On Maundy Thursday, it is good for us to examine our resistance to being served. How do respond, are we uncomfortable, do we worry about how our feet look, who will see them? Foot washing – embarrassing, unusual, but soul searching. Hand washing – intimate and open. It is a time for us to
look inside ourselves and see what God sees – our humanity, our desires, our concerns, our hopes. God is interested in what is inside of us – deep within us. Perhaps, that will help our awkwardness with the whole idea of bearing our feet and our hands and not our souls. In a few minutes when given the opportunity to have our feet washed, and to wash someone’s feet, or to have your hands washed by another. In that washing we claim, we proclaim that we are open to being served, to being loved. We are saying, “I am open to receiving your gift of servanthood – the gift of yourself. I am willing to receive so that I may give.” To be able to give, we must first receive.
We see Jesus’ act as a model of humility and service that the church is to emulate. The servant is no greater than the master, and the posture of washing feet holds that truth before our eyes. It is a moment in time that we are asked to lay aside our expectations, our judgments, our concerns and to be present, to be real, to be the hands and feet of Christ.
Max Lucado writes, “You can be sure Jesus knows the future of these feet he is washing. These twenty-four feet will not spend the next day following their master, defending his cause. These feet will dash for cover at the flash of a Roman sword. Behold the gift Jesus gives His followers. He knows what these men are about to do…. and when they do, he wants them to remember how his knees knelt before them and he washed their feet. He wants them to realize those feet are still clean…He forgave their sin before they even committed it. He offered mercy before they even asked for it.”
Jesus said, “For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” In the footwashing, like in the incarnation, the method is the message. It is more than a humble act of deference. It is a silent sermon to the world about how to love.
Mother Teresa always said that she saw the face of Jesus in the poor that she served. When asked about her mission to the poor, she responded, “People often misunderstand us…they think we do it first because we love the poor. Tell them we do it for Jesus….we do it, with Jesus, for Jesus and to Jesus.” With Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. Perhaps today, you will see the face of Jesus. Amen.