We have gathered this night to begin our observance and celebration of the central mystery and truth of what God has done in Christ, and continues to do – for us and for the whole world. Most often, we think of celebrations as times of joy and happiness and excitement, and so it seems strange to think of Maundy Thursday – a night of betrayal and approaching grief – as a celebration, and yet it is….most assuredly, a celebration.
Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal, a celebration of the Passover feast of freedom and longing for the fullness of God’s purpose and glory, for human-kind, the earth, and all creation to reflect the goodness of God. And it is in the context of this meal that Jesus was able to give the disciples his final instructions and wisdom. In the few precious hours before they would be scattered – some to betrayal, some to hiding, others to both confrontation and denial – Jesus held them close, and gave them the words he most wanted them to hear, and learn, and live. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The disciples knew the central command of their faith and way of life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. Now Jesus was taking it even deeper – love one another as I have loved you. And the two primal examples of love that Jesus gave were washing the disciples’ feet, and offering himself up to death for our sake. In washing their feet, Jesus took on the role of a servant, a household slave, and gave us a picture of humility and willingness to set aside position, status, and social norms. The master, the rabbi, the leader and revered teacher wrapped himself in the servant’s towel, and the menial task of ancient hospitality, saying “this is what love looks like; this is how it is done.”
When I was growing up my mother often suffered from migraines, and the kindest thing that anyone in the family could do for her when she was feeling stressed was to massage her feet with lotion. It made my mother feel cared for, more relaxed, helped ease the tension; and it was a very intimate moment – something so simple, but so close.
That intimacy and closeness is also what foot-washing in John’s Gospel, and in our service tonight is all about. As we take turns pouring water over one another’s feet, and drying them with a towel, we are giving service to one another, our fellow disciples. We are also showing our willingness to be vulnerable with one another, to be intimate on a spiritual and emotional level; this is probably the hardest part.
Most of us are willing to be of service to others, both in our church and outside of it; many of us are willing to take on the dirty, messy, uncomfortable, behind-the-scenes jobs that are so often what is needed to take care of others. But the hard part is being vulnerable, whether with relative strangers or with people we’ve known for decades. I’m not talking about getting rid of privacy, or over-sharing, or hanging all your dirty laundry out in public for all to see.
What I am talking about is the openness to giving and receiving love and care from one another in the same way that Jesus loves us. Because fundamentally we are the Body of Christ; we are already intimately connected with one another. The bonds of love that we have and the ways we express that love are a sign of Christ’s self-giving love for us; and when we consciously and intentionally offer one another signs of love according to Jesus’ pattern, the more we will be able to carry that love with us out into God’s world, and serve those who are put into our path.
Christian love is hard and deep; it is neither simplistic nor trivial nor romanticized.
The other primary sign of Christ’s love is the Cross – Jesus’ very self offered, blessed, broken, and given for us; and that outpouring of love comes to us again tonight in our celebration of the Eucharist – and not just tonight, but every time we take bread and wine, and bless it, break it, and share it with one another. Both of these signs – foot-washing and Eucharist – draw us deeply into the mystery, the intimacy, and the joy of God’s love. Pray that we may be held and shaped by that love, for our sake, for the sake of one another, and for the sake of the world God so loves.
Let us pray.
Be present, be present O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread, and in the washing of feet; who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen. ~ Book of Common Prayer
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 2, 2015