In pre-Covid times, and hopefully again next year, this service contains a demonstration of Christian love that is unique in the Church’s calendar … It has, for many centuries, been the custom for deacons and priests to get down on their knees and ritually wash the feet of their congregations. Even though scientists know that Covid is not passed on by touch, we are still advised to ‘proceed with caution’ … hopefully, it will be ‘service as usual’ next year!
When we listen to John’s account of the Last Supper a couple of things might spring into our minds …
- the primary thought is that there is no account of the institution of holy communion … we hear of that in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians …
- a second thought you may have had revolves around the great detail we are given of the moment when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
John describes how Jesus got up … took off his outer robe … tied a towel around his waist … poured water … washed the feet of his disciples … and then wiped them with a towel.
As we listen to John’s words we can picture the scene in great detail … in fact, there is far more detail than we are normally given in the gospel narrative …
So … what makes this moment so special?
When asked about the foot washing as it is practised in the modern Church, I always describe it as the one moment in the year when the clergy can demonstrate obedience to their calling to serve … but … is it more profound than that?
Let us briefly reflect upon the detail we are given by John …
Jesus: got up from the table.
- Jesus had to physically move from the comfort of worldly companionship into a different place …
- Jesus had to ‘put himself out’ as we might say in our modern way of speaking.
- Rather than joining in with the ‘banter’ and enjoying the ‘moment’ … Jesus got up, stepping outside of that which was expected … Jesus was prepared to be different from the norm.
Then Jesus: took off his outer robe.
- We all have an ‘outer robe’ that we use to create a public persona for ourselves … the façade with which we cloak our ‘real selves’.
- Jesus calls us to remove that ‘outer robe’ in order that we might reveal the truth that lies beneath … our commitment to love and serve in his name.
Then Jesus: tied a towel around himself.
- Having stepped outside the normal social conventions by getting up and removing his outer robe … Jesus then donned a new persona … that of a servant.
- This attitude of service is further demonstrated by the way in which Jesus … surely the ‘guest of honour’ at the meal … poured water into a basin.
I wonder what the disciples expected to happen next?
Were they silenced by Jesus’ unexpected actions … or were they so used to his counter-cultural behaviour that the conversation carried on?
Whatever the disciples did in response to Jesus’ actions so far … it is clear that they were not expecting him to get down on his knees (there is no other way of washing feet!) and performing the most menial of tasks for them.
And not only did he wash their feet … we are told that he [wiped] them with the towel that was tied around him.
This was not mere ritual of service … this was the ‘real deal’.
Not only did Jesus demonstrate the level of service to which we are all called, but he also showed us how we should go on to care for one another in a more profound and complete way.
After his exchange with the impetuous Simon Peter, Jesus then asked: Do you know what I have done for you?
As I wash the feet of those in Church, I often wonder what is going through the minds of those who have been served in this way?
Are they seeing it as some ‘odd, arcane ritual’ that (thankfully) only happens once a year … something they have had to steel themselves to participate in?
Or, are they seeing a loving act of service that is meant to be a model for their own Christian faith?
After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he went on to give us the New Commandment … love one another.
But, of course, it doesn’t stop there … there is nothing bland and indecisive about what Jesus commands … he goes on to say: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Just as Jesus stepped outside the norms of social expectations … just as Jesus revealed the truth of his servanthood … just as Jesus got down on his knees and brought cleansing to others … just as Jesus went further and offered ongoing care and love … just as Jesus, ultimately, went to a brutal execution for each and every one of us … so we are called to love, and serve, in his name.
Are we up for that challenge?