As Holy Week approaches each year, I turn to my favorite part of the Gospels, John 13-17. Many other passages seem rushed. They leave me yearning for more sensory detail and pondering the significance of Jesus’ cryptic words. In these five chapters, the author slows down the pace almost cinematically. After all, this is the group’s last supper together.
One by one, the main disciples make their appearance in John’s account. Peter chooses an argument with Jesus, then quickly relents. John raises the question everyone is afraid to ask. Judas Iscariot abruptly leaves the room. Philip and the other Judases question Jesus on certain questions of theology.
All the while, Jesus remains in the spotlight. Tenderly, he calls the disciples “my children”. They assail him with questions: Where are you going? How long is a little moment? Can we come too? Often the twelve have exasperated Jesus, but this night he listens and responds with boundless patience. Conscious that the time has come for him to leave this world, he returns several times with nostalgia to his life “before the creation of the world”.
Yet Jesus now lives within the confines of space and time on a cantankerous planet, and although he urges the disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” it is evident that he himself is troubled. He knows the betrayal, arrest, torture and execution that awaits him, and also knows that some of them, his closest friends, will meet a similar fate. “I send you like lambs among wolves,” he once warned them, and now the wolves are growling at the door.
For two millennia, Christians have been re-enacting one of the scenes of this intimate evening, the sharing of bread and wine. Few denominations, however, take literally Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet, except perhaps on Holy Thursday itself. Here is how John introduces the scene: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothes and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of his disciples…
I have participated in a few foot washings, and they may seem more embarrassing than sacred. Everyone makes sure to arrive with clean feet and respectable socks, so the wash itself is redundant. And other than childhood or injury, we’re not used to someone else taking our shoes off.
Although not part of modern culture, footwashing was a daily act of hospitality in first-century Judea. In Colorado, I greet guests with a handshake or a hug, and offer them a glass of water and a seat. Visitors to Japan are taught to remove their shoes at the door, and the host always presents them with a pair of indoor slippers to wear. Hospitality means putting our guests at ease and, in a hot climate, cleaning the accumulated grime from sweaty, calloused feet both honors and refreshes the guest. (See Luke 7:44-46 for Jesus’ rebuke to a Pharisee who did not offer such hospitality.)
In my reading this year, I noticed an overlooked detail in John’s account. Jesus “rose from the meal to wash the feet of the disciples” – which shows that no one had offered common hospitality to the group and that none of the disciples had volunteered to wash the dirty feet of others . Small wonder.
We can miss the degrading nature of the task in Jesus’ day. Peter certainly understood this, which is why he strongly protested against Jesus washing anyone’s feet. The messy and unworthy role of footwasher was inferior to his master and should be reserved for servants.
Correcting that spirit, of course, was the purpose of Jesus’ object lesson. “I gave you an example that you should do as I did for you,” he said. The kingdom of God he ushered in would not advance by top-down power, but by bottom-up acts of service. Jesus elevated the lowest acts of service, for whatever we do for “the least of them” we do for him.
Although in the modern West we rarely wash other people’s feet, we have many opportunities for service. Every day I hear about my friends in Ukraine who are hosting refugees, making dangerous errands to the border to evacuate children and the elderly, and providing meals and basic necessities to those who have everything. lost to Russian missiles. Other acts of service take place out of sight. I think of a friend who serves as a chaplain at a memory care facility, or one who leads an aphasia choir for stroke victims. And could any church function without the volunteers who print the bulletins, disinfect the pews and clear the parking lot?
Rachel Remen of the Commonweal Cancer Center draws a distinction between serving and helping. “Service is not synonymous with help,” she says. “Aid is based on inequality, it is not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help someone with less strength. It’s a one-up, one-down relationship, and people feel that inequality… Helping incurs a debt: when you help someone, they owe you. But the service is reciprocal. When I help, I have a feeling of satisfaction, but when I serve, I have a feeling of gratitude.
Remen adds, “A server knows they are being used and has the will to be used in service of something greater.” When Jesus bent down to wash Peter’s feet, Peter felt the unworthiness of his Lord and Master assuming an “inferior” role that was below him. After three years with his master, he still lacked the reckoning of grace: he still flows to those who don’t deserve it and, though costly, comes as a free gift for those with open hands.
Greek and Roman authors are almost never praised humility as a virtue, applying the word instead to abject and unworthy people. Christianity reversed this trend by attributing humility to God’s own Son. In a poem considered a hymn of the early church (Philippians 2:5-11), Paul describes the state of mind of Jesus, who did not cling to the prerogatives of divinity, but took the nature even a servant. Moreover, “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death – even death on a cross!”
Then the hymn takes an abrupt turn:
That’s why God raised him to the highest place
and gave him the name which is above all names,
in the name of Jesus every knee bend,
in the heavens and on the earth and under the earth,
and let every tongue know that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This same twist occurs in Jesus’ last words to his disciples at the Last Supper. After predicting his betrayal and death, and warning them of the coming persecution, he announces, “In this world you will have trouble. But be brave! I conquered the world.
Even as he spoke those words, soldiers buckled swords to intercept him in a garden. How vain that statement must have seemed to the disciples over the next few days as they watched him being judged, tortured and killed. How empty it sometimes seems to us, while our world seems more defeated by evil than by good.
Theologian NT Wright opened his Maundy Thursday reflection this year with a scene that has gone viral on YouTube. It begins with a Ukrainian woman dusting black powder on her white grand piano before sitting down to play a Chopin etude. As the camera widens, it shows the debris of her house, destroyed by a Russian missile. Wright observes: “All around her, the broken doors and windows, the dirt and rubble on the furniture and the floor, the fires burning in the street outside, tell their story. And she continues, with defiance, to tell hers. A small work of performative art, an act of new creation in the middle of the ruins.
Wright concludes his meditation: “The scene of the washing of the feet unexpectedly brings to light the good news that the tyrants and bullies of the world are being held accountable and overthrown; that a different way of being human was launched on the world. The church, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, must speak truth to power, the truth of God’s new creation. As we discover again tonight, the bread and wine of the Eucharist forcefully proclaim to the rest of the world that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God himself sat defiantly at the keyboard, to play , even amidst the rubble, the unstoppable music of new creation.”