Year B, Maundy Thursday March 29, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
It begins again. The Triduum. The great liturgy in three acts that moves us through the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I love that we start it here, at a common table together. The very early church celebrated Eucharist like this, as a meal, sustaining their bodies as well as their spirits. But they we usually reclining on cushions the disciples did at their Last Supper. Maybe we’ll try that next year.
Theology in the Eucharist is self-evident: Jesus sacrifices Himself, and in the breaking of His Body and the spilling of His Blood, we are reconciled with God. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” There are many, many ways to understand it and celebrate it. Just in our own Eucharistic prayers we account for the sacrament as both a memorial, a remembrance of Jesus’ act of breaking, blessings and sharing bread and wine with His friends, and as a mysterious occasion of Jesus’ real presence among us. “May they be for us the Body and Blood of your most precious son.” The symbolism of the Eucharist speaks for itself about a self-sacrificing God.
What about the foot washing? St. John is the only Evangelist to relate the foot washing story, and it gets a very prominent placement. This story occupies the place where the words of institution (“This is my body…”) occupies in the other three. And it really sounds like it. Listen: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” “He took bread, broke it, gave it to His friends and said…” Even the cadence is the same. Step by step, ritually washing His friend’s feet just like he ritually broke bread and poured wine.
All of our liturgy is pedagogical; it teaches us. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, as we pray, we believe, or in more elegant English, “Praying shapes believing.” The ritual of the Eucharist teaches us that God loves us so much that God’s only Son was allowed to be sacrificed, to sacrifice Himself to save us. It teaches us that our God chose to lay down His own life for His friends and everyone else that was and is and is to come, and that we, members of His family partake in His gift by making Him part of us, truly, by eating bread and wine together that we know to bear the real, the eternal and actual presence of Jesus Christ. “Behold what you are. Receive what you will become.” Just a churchy way of saying, “we are what we eat.” So then what does this story and our ritual of the foot-washing teach us about God?
It tells us our God is understanding. When Peter questions Jesus, Jesus replies, not with chastisement, but “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” It tells us that our God has a mission in this world, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Unless you allow Jesus to do what He came to do, be it to clean our feet or die on a cross, unless you accept that, you have no part in Jesus. It is a lot more comfortable for most of us to wash someone’s feet than to have someone wash ours, but Jesus didn’t come to accommodate our hang-ups but to save the world, your hung-up self included.
The pedilavium, the washing of the feet, teaches us that God has expectations of us. So does the Eucharist, those expectations being to bear suffering, to empty ourselves in sacrifice when sacrifice is called for. And the expectations of Jesus with a towel tied around His waist? “I give you now a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” Love one another. When we truly love, how can we but serve them? Even on our knees with a towel and a bucket of water. O the messes we make! O the gratitude for those who help to clean us up! We are called, in love, to form a community of equals, the ecclesia, the Beloved Community. The mystery of His death cleanses us, and in that cleansing, all earthly power, all temporal authority is turned upside down, and the first will be last and the last will be first and the master will become the slave, the Lord and Teacher will be the servant of all.
As the blood begins to flow, as the Cross looms and death hems us in over the next 24 hours, remember that vision of Jesus, in the hours before his betrayal, fully aware of what was to come, He tied a towel around His waist and tended to His friends with tenderness and love. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. AMEN.