by Kim Gonia
If such a thing exists, Maundy Thursday is the patron liturgy of the year for diaconal ministers. The towel and basin are symbols of the ministry to which those consecrated to word and service are called. Pictures of foot washing grace the cover of many diaconal ministry consecration bulletins, and some diaconal ministers fold a towel over their cincture when wearing an alb in worship. The ELCA’s understanding of word and service ministry is rooted in this very image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
So you would be right to think that I am standing here today because of my official status as a diaconal minster. That being said, I must be honest and tell you, that in the congregation in Colorado where I served as diaconal minister for 3 ½ years … we did not do a foot washing on Maundy Thursday. We intentionally chose not to incorporate this ritual into our liturgy for the simple reason that although Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the Great Three Days when our liturgy overflows with profound ritual, in my former congregation, this day had come to be for many – Maundy Thursday: The Awkward Liturgical Experience.
Early in Lent people began asking if we would be washing feet on Maundy Thursday and making their feelings about this practice quite clear. It seemed to be a ritual people either loved – if say, they were under the age of 10 – but more often, hated. Those who didn’t much like it but came to worship anyway, kept their shoes on and their heads down hoping, praying, that no one would invite them into that rather embarrassing display of bare feet in the sanctuary. Others came straight from work or other tasks of the day, and forgetting that shoes and socks were optional, found they were wearing tights or hose or tied shoes with knots in the laces.
You know how that goes. You’ve seen it too. And personally, I just don’t want anything to get in the way of hearing this particular story from John’s gospel, of Jesus’ last and greatest commandment to his disciples. For you see, this foot washing ritual – this awkward down on the knees, bare feet in the sanctuary, water splashed on the floor ritual – prepares us for all that is yet to come in these next three days.
Jesus and his disciples were not in a sanctuary when their awkward ritual unfolded. They were eating the evening meal, like many other evening meals except that this time, it was the last meal they would share. The disciples weren’t aware of this detail, but Jesus was. Jesus knew full well what time it was, and what was about to unfold. Jesus knew that he was about to leave his faithful disciples – those whom he had loved from the beginning and would love to the end. And because Jesus knew that he had come from God and was going to God, he did not want to leave without giving his disciples what they would need for the days ahead. So Jesus got up from the table, took off his cloak, found a towel and water, and got down on his knees in front of them.
The conversation around the table died into silence as the disciples watched. It took a while and some washed feet, before Peter – of course it was Peter – broke the silence and asked the question running through all their minds. What are you doing? Are you going to wash my feet too? Gently picking up one of Peter’s feet, Jesus said, I know … this doesn’t look like it makes much sense, but believe me, it does. And if you want to know what this is all about, I must wash your feet. There is no other way for you to understand.
As the water pours over foot number one, resistant Peter turns into wildly demonstrative Peter, who offers not only his feet but his hands and his head for washing. And in the process discovers … that the washing is not about being made clean. No. The washing is about loving. Loving given and loving received.
Those outside the church and on the margins of church communities, often observe all the talk about love in the church and comment that less talk and more doing might make more of a difference in the world. In truth most faith communities do far more than talk about love. We who are actively engaged in loving communities of faith, know that a great deal of hard work is exerted in creating opportunities and time in busy schedules for ourselves and others to practice showing love. Yet for all our efforts at doing, speaking, and being love, we are often the first to wake in the wee hours of the morning aware that our most extravagant individual and collective acts of love … pale in comparison to what unfolds in front of us on most days.
The best love we have to offer pales in comparison to the force of the earth when it heaves or sends giant waves to spill over the land or ferocious winds to consume everything in their path. Historical evidence as well as current events make it clear, that our best collective love … does not eliminate violent upheavals against negligent regimes, nor does it render no-fly zones unnecessary, nor does it undo damage caused by a nuclear melt down or government shut down. Our best love cannot make our children’s lives, our parent’s lives, or our lives for that matter, pain free. Our best love has not yet found a cure for every disease or syndrome that affects our daily lives. Our best love has not yet resulted in the elimination of racism or sexism, ageism or classism, has not yet found a way to welcome all people just as they are. I find it most interesting that as of late, not only has love not yet halted the pace of heightened rhetoric in public discourse in this country, in the past couple of weeks, the discourse itself has included debating whether or not in fact, love wins.
Whether it is a quiet whisper in the wee hours of the morning or the harsh light of day that convicts you, we all sense that love has not yet completely won the day. Which makes it hard to know what to do with this commandment from Jesus heard, remembered, and enacted here today. Is this just a liturgical ritual we engage in for our own sakes, or does it still matter when we walk out the door?
What is so unexpected, and so radically loving, about this foot washing is not just that it is the teacher and master doing a servants work. What is so unexpected and so radically loving about this is that Jesus held their dirty feet … and in that moment of intimacy held so much more. As Jesus held their dirty feet he also held their untrusting hearts, their weak spirits, their calloused egos, their broken bodies … and loved them. Jesus, the Word made flesh, the one in whom God is glorified, held all that was less than perfect in his disciples and poured his love over them.
Knowing what was to come – that when the eating and speaking were done, Jesus and his disciples would go to the garden where the betraying and denying and dying would begin – Jesus paused to take their feet one by one and pour his love over them. Knowing that they still didn’t ‘get it’, that they would be afraid and run scared, that they would doubt and question what it all meant – Jesus took their feet one by one and poured his love over them. Knowing that the best he was leaving behind in the world was this motley crew of imperfect disciples – Jesus took their feet in his hands one by one and poured his love over them.
Knowing that the only way any human being understands love is to experience love – Jesus took their feet one by one …
It was messy and awkward, but something happened that night that changed the course of creation’s unfolding. The popularity of liturgical foot washing has come and gone and come again, yet the story that holds it continues to be told. So here we are again, gathered in this place, remembering what Jesus did, about to wash feet and pour love again. Yet not our love, but Christ’s love.
When we get down on our knees and hold the foot of the person in front of us, then turn and offer our feet to be held and washed, we give ourselves over to an uncomfortably intimate connection with someone we may or may not really know, may or may not really like. In that moment of surrender, we trust that there is more happening in this ritual than what is visible. Somehow in that moment of surrender, we know that it is the love of Christ at work, both in the giving and the receiving.
What we will carry with us from here, is the bodily felt memory of this experience – of Christ’s love being poured out on us and by us. And God willing, that memory will inform and empower all our broken, humble, grand acts of love so that the enormity of Christ’s love is made known.
Like I said, in my former congregation we did not wash feet on Maundy Thursday. We washed hands instead. We washed hands because they are more often the instruments of service today, much like walking feet were instruments of service in Jesus’ day. Unlike feet, everyone wanted their hands washed. Large and small, calloused and smooth, all manner of hands were presented. We washed and dried blessed each hand, tracing the sign of the cross – that ultimate symbol of love – on each open palm.
Quite honestly, it doesn’t matter whether we choose to wash hands or feet on Maundy Thursday. Either one will do. What does matter is that we recognize that we cannot bear the days to come, nor can creation continue to unfold, without the love of Christ poured out here today in this ritual.
What does matter is that we wash, and that we give ourselves over to being washed, and that we know Christ’s love in the washing. For when the earth heaves, and oceans spill over the land … when winds destroy, and violence reigns in distant countries and in our homes … when rhetoric and pain are all around and in us … what this world needs more than anything else is people who know how to love one another.
So come …
Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14 – 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 – John 13.1-17, 31b-35