Their courage will fade like mist. The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark--to stay with Jesus, to fight with him, to die with him even--will scurry away at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshly-washed feet they will abandon him. With the Sacrament still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really. Any of them. Maybe will. All of us. Some Day.
Anyway, the story in John 13 is full of drama and pathos, Jesus the Lord, serving his friends. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end." Who can begin to imagine the rationale behind either clause? And then he gives them the new commandment, a new mandate (thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)--that they love each and another just as he has loved them--not just in this kind of moment, either, but from the beginning and to the end.
One could spend an entire evening, an academic career, a ministry, a life, trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of that command.
In the past, on the Thursday before Easter, I have scheduled such a service and gathered those who came in a circle of chairs. I would take a bowl full of warm water and kneel before my parishioners, to bathe one of their feet and dry it with a towel. As I did, I spoke to each of the mystery of God's grace, the cleansing that God's mercy affords. I would sometimes recount some particular struggle they had endured since last we met in this particular way, always with the assurance that wherever they went from this circle, God and we were going with them. The water on their feet signified it.
It is a powerful intimacy. I am aware that, in all likelihood, I am the first one since that person's mother to wash, maybe even to touch, their feet. Tears come. One said it was like baptism, or baptismal renewal.
The Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice Footwashing as a Sacrament. I believe the rest of us should, too--it is clearly instituted by Jesus. It conveys grace. Alas. Not everyone does. But I do. Many I have served loved it. One family had a "footwashing bowl" thrown for me at a local potter's. Another, after one of my many knee surgeries, gave me a small garden cart to push myself around on it, to ease the burden on my legs.
One of my adversaries in a former church contended that the Footwashing was about me and not Jesus. She said I just did it for attention, for association, for self-aggrandizement. Perhaps she was right. Or right in part--false or theatrical humility can be a powerful sacramental of pride. Still, I have scheduled these services. Tried to exorcise the pride by doing the service. By teaching others to love one another in this particular way--just as Jesus did and commanded that we do--so that we might let the circle of love and service begin to broaden the scope of our love for one another.
Not this year. My people here have let me know they are "uncomfortable" with such intimacy, and increasingly so--nor only with words, either. This is the only church I have ever served where attendance at the Footwashing has dropped during my tenure--and precipitously so. Last year, my mother, sister, wife, and three other people were the only ones to bring their feet to the circle. There 30 empty chairs.
Sometimes grace and compassion means letting people walk or scurry away, or never show at all. Sometimes trying to love as Jesus does means dying, as he did, to expectation or preference.
And so I am not doing it this year. I do not want to be irritated with those who do not come. I do not want to be unloving by asking folk to do what, for one reason or the other, they can't do. If I rise from the floor, as I did last year, with angry and hardened heart I prove my adversary right, and I do not want it to be about me. I want it to be about Jesus. About his love. About our loving one another.
That said, tonight will not be the same. At least for me.