Washing Feet is Messy … and Intimate – Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2107
In the Name of God, who creates and loves us, Jesus who saves and befriends us, and the Holy Spirit who sustains. us. Amen.
An advertisement popped up in my email this week. On the left were images of things our millennial generation might not recognize: blue tins holding reel to reel video tapes, VHS cassettes, and those 2 inch by 2 inch slides we used to feed into our home projectors. The caption read “It’s time your precious memories go from this to this.” “This” being Digital format.
“Precious memories”. Memory may well be the only way we know who we are. Loved ones we no longer see exist only in our mind’s eye. When we lose our memory, our world crumbles. Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said that what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember. Through scripture we remember that we are children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. We remember best through symbol and story and those treasured pictures—be they fading in an old frame or on DVD. They remind us of who we are and where we came from.
Tonight we are here to remember—through holy community and Holy Communion—not as a moment of sentimental nostalgia but to answer a mandate: Do this in remembrance of me. We are here to remember so that we will never forget.
In the dining room of the home where I grew up was a large framed picture of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper, in the style of the famous mural of Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps you had one in your home as well or are familiar with this painting. It captures a precious memory of an important time for Jesus and his friends. Yet, pictures don’t always tell the whole story or give us accurate information. For example, in the painting of the Last Supper, everyone is seated at the table, which is strange because they actually reclined to eat. Things are not always as they seem to be even in our family photos. How many back stories can you tell when you look at them years after they were taken?
The Gospel passage we hear on this night gives us an opportunity to explore a very intimate occasion: a final meal before one’s death. The centerpiece of the reading is the image of Jesus girding himself with a towel and doing the job of a house servant, washing the feet of the disciples. Understandably, this has become a significant Christian metaphor for servanthood and humble leadership. Many Christian denominations include it as a big part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. I’ve noticed over the years how our younger ones really get into it. But it’s messy. Some may feel inept and silly. You have to roll up your sleeves and go to work. You have to kneel to perform the act. You get wet and so does the floor. You touch people in ways you would not touch them outside this sacred ritual.
In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher shares her experience of one Maundy Thursday. “The room is still, the air is gentle. Sometimes people embrace after they have washed each other’s feet. Katrina is standing at the end of the room, barefoot. Richard Bass, a towel draped over his arm like as waiter, is helping Esther Schultz to her seat. I kneel down before a thin woman I’ve seen a few times at church. Her foot is nothing but stretched skin over bone. As I hold it, I realize that Jesus knew a secret: to wash someone’s foot, if it is a voluntary act, engenders compassion. The lowly, unprotected foot, not the wise hands or head, is vulnerable, unmasked. I think to myself, There is a reason for all of this.” There is a reason for all this and though I would not want to disparage the long-standing interpretation of this ritual as a symbol of authentic servant ministry, I wonder if like our family photos there isn’t a back story, isn’t more going on here, isn’t another reason Jesus did what he did that night.
Jesus had touched lepers and hemorrhaging women. He had openly shared meals with those who were considered despicable and sinful people—all violations of Jewish purity codes. Yet his disciples never protested. But here they do. This is just too hard to take. Think about the cultural context. Twelve men, among the closest friends of Jesus, letting another male—their rabbi no less—perform such an intimate act, washing and touching their feet. And, if there were women present—and there may well have been—it would be as much a violation of social and religious norms for him to wash their feet. I wonder if Peter’s reluctance to having their feet washed by Jesus was less about humility and propriety and more about their fear of exposing their vulnerability.
In The Scandal of Service: Jesus Washes Our Feet, the author writes: “Jesus invites his friends to lay down the garments which give them a special status, to remove the masks that hide their real selves and to present themselves to others humbly, vulnerably, with all their poverty. To become humble and small requires a loving heart, purified of its fears and human security, ready to love to the end, in order to give life to others.”
Could this photo memory Jesus has given us be more than a symbolic act of his own servanthood and also about his very human need to share a personal, intimate, loving experience with each of his dear friends before they part? Could he be teaching us that he understands our vulnerability, how difficult it may be to lay down our perceived status, to remove the masks that hide our real selves? Could he be urging us to remember and cherish those precious times we share with those closest to us knowing the fragility and relative brevity of life? Something to think about as we take up the basin and the towel.