Maundy Thursday – 1 Cor 11.23-26
John 13.1-7, 31b-35
Saint John the Evangelist opens the fourth gospel with some of the most beautiful and majestic lines in the entire bible. “In the beginning was the Word,” he writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” He was “the light of all people. The light [that] shines in the darkness…” John also tells us how “…the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and how “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”.
Then, sometime later, John shares with us how the eternal Word made flesh, the source of all being, the bright light shining in the darkness, and the glory of God… offers to get down onto the ground and wash the dusty feet of some of his friends. Now, to say the disciples had a very high regard for Jesus would be a huge understatement, and so Peter, for example, was utterly shocked by the mere suggestion.
In and of itself, foot-washing was a commonplace practice in first-century Palestine, because spending your day walking along dusty roads wearing sandals could leave your feet very filthy. When welcoming a traveler into one’s home, being a suitably hospitable host meant offering water with which your guest could wash their feet. But the task of washing someone else’s feet for them was considered especially lowly and demeaning. In fact, if a household had both Jewish and Gentile servants, even the Jewish servants wouldn’t be expected to provide that service.
This is the context for Jesus’ offer, and so Peter’s reaction when his revered teacher and lord offers to wash his feet is understandable. And as readers of John’s Gospel, knowing what we know about who Jesus is, we’re expected to be pretty shocked ourselves. So we might feel some sympathy as Peter fumbles while trying to reconcile these two seeming opposites: Jesus as God’s eternal, radiant, glorifying Word with Jesus as the most humble of servants, willing to wash feet that need cleansing.
The Fourth Gospel has sometimes been described as being a bit on the dualistic side, John painting just these sorts of sharp contrasts as between light and darkness, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth. Even amidst this scene of self-offering and humble service, for example, John describes how God is glorified through Jesus. But John’s true intent here isn’t to divide our experience of the world into this or that. His purpose is to unite us with Christ by helping us recognize that these things which seem to be in opposition are really two sides of the same truth.
Jesus’s identity as the perfect human being, One with the Father, glorifying God in the world, and humbly serving out of Love is part of the larger mystery we traditionally name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our Beloved God who is three and One. And so in that sense it’s not a truth meant to be grasped with our intellect and reason. Instead, Jesus modelled for us how we could know this mystery by participating in it. His teaching and his story are invitations for us to join him in this dance of self-offering and love, the dance of Trinity in Unity.
This is what we practice when we participate in the sacraments, whose beauty and power stem from being both symbol and the experience of this great mystery of faith. Through these rituals we participate in the mystery of Jesus as both God’s light and glory, and as the humble, suffering servant. And when we, as followers of Jesus, incorporate this mystery into the prayer of our lives something wonderful happens. As we surrender to our roles as humble servants of God, letting God share Christ’s glory through us, we begin to recognize our entire world as a sacrament. Theologian John Macquarrie once wrote that “…the goal of all sacramentality and sacramental theology is to make the things of this world so transparent that in them and through them we know God’s presence and activity in our very midst, and so experience his grace.”
If I was asked to nominate other rituals as sacramental in this way, foot-washing would be near the top of the list. Partly because it occurs in John’s Gospel in such a prominent place, in the place where we would find the sharing of bread and wine in the other gospels. It has a baptismal element in that the water symbolizes being cleansed and purified. And it has a Eucharistic element in that we share in a deeply nourishing experience in grateful communion with one another. But the best part about foot-washing is the novel aspect of humble service. Jesus tells us that he’s providing an example for us to follow, as he loves us to the end, to the utmost, to the end of his very self, humbly emptying himself as a servant until he and his Father in heaven are One.
We can see this complete humility before God in the language Jesus uses describing God’s glory. As he goes out from the scene of the foot-washing Jesus says “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” So in the very act of describing God being glorified through him Jesus is referring to himself in the third person. It’s as if in his total surrender of self, Jesus the mere human being becomes completely transparent to God’s glory. And then Jesus tells us how we recognize this glory and share it among us, by loving one another as he loves us. This is the new commandment, God’s will for us, that we love one another to the end.
And this is how everyone will know us as Christians. We love one another not with a sort of sentimental love, but with the self-emptying love of Jesus. As sinners, we tend to forget that God’s will for us is to love completely and selflessly as Jesus did. It’s the dance of participation in the divine life, of letting ourselves rest in the presence of the Holy One, glorifying God through Christ, and so being God’s love in the world. All of creation participates in this dance, and when we let us ourselves be emptied of everything except the truth of our identity in Christ we recognize this dance in ourselves, our neighbors, and in the wonderful world around us.
William Yeats once penned these lines:
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The foot-washing ritual is practice for participating in the dance Jesus invites us to. It’s a special kind of participation and a special kind of dance, where the dancer and dance become one. Because we’re not only practicing the washing of feet, or even the offering of a service humbly. We practice listening to the beautiful music issuing from God’s blessed stillness, calling us to the dance. We allow the Holy One to empty us, becoming transparent to the Glory of Christ within, and serving in the Spirit of Love. And as humble servants in Christ we learn to recognize God’s Awesome Glory in all its infinite forms — flower, tree, sunset, stone; in you, in me, in all of us mere human beings; in Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; in the sacraments and in the sacrament of life itself; and yes, also in the simple act of getting down onto the ground and washing each other’s dusty feet.
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