Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
Love is a light, but reveals shadows.
God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. The story before is breathtaking: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end,” and who can even begin to imagine the logic of either clause? But in love he touches them—not just their minds or hearts but also their dusty and increasingly antsy feet, bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion and loyalty to them. And he does so in full awareness that their loyalty will fade like mist.
The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark—to stay with Jesus, even fight and die with him if it came to that—will disappear into the shadows of Gethsemane, evaporate at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshlywashed feet they will abandon him. With his Body and Blood 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.
Will he? Ever? Any of them? Any of us? Ever? Someday?
Jesus the Lord, loves and serves his friends in this almost-too-much-to-take-in way. And then Jesus gives them this almost-too-much-to-give-out commandment, a new commandment and mandate (and thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)—that they love one another just as he has loved them. Not only the way he has just loved them, but in all the ways Jesus had loved and them and did, from the beginning to the end. One could spend life, a ministry, an academic career trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of Jesus’ last command.
God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. And he left this word: “I have given you an example: If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice footwashing as a Sacrament. We might wish the rest of us would. The practice meets the requirements, after all: it was instituted by Jesus, and it does convey grace.
Still, the grace footwashing conveys can be overwhelming—too much grace, if there is such a thing. Light can blind eyes accustomed to the shadows.
And so it comes as no surprise when footwashing services are poorly attended, when even the most faithful say, with their words or absence, “You shall never touch my feet.”
It is no surprise when even the faithful keep their distance, keep their feet, their hands, their hearts and minds mostly to themselves, hide in the shadows of resistance. Putting ourselves in Jesus’ hands changes things, changes us. Easier to be who we are, even if it is in the dark.
“If I do not wash your feet, you have not part in me,” Jesus says, and we know at once that distance is not an option in discipleship. We have to come close, have to let him have his way with us, have to let him bathe us, and not only our feet.
How is the love of Jesus, and of the church, uncomfortable for you? Do you wish for such intimacy, with Jesus and others, as Jesus desires? How would that look day-to-day?