Lessons for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The disciples were undoubtedly shocked and amazed when Jesus took up the basin & towel and began to wash their feet. He was their master! He was their Lord! Foot washing is just not something that masters do. Imagine your surprise if you saw the Speaker of the House shining someone’s shoes. What if you saw the Queen of England giving someone a pedicure?
In the days of Jesus, foot washing was a servant’s job. One of the household servants would wash the feet of the master and the guests. It wasn’t exactly a glamorous job. Walking the dirty streets of a first century street for miles, wearing nothing but sandals, feet got really dry and dirty, calloused and cracked. So to offer a washing of feet was an act of hospitality which showed great care for the guest. The act also demonstrated tremendous service and deep humility. It is little wonder that Simon Peter told Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” No, Jesus would NOT wash his dirty feet. Not Jesus. Not the rabbit and master. Not ever. But Jesus still stood there with his wash basin and towel. Jesus still knelt there in front of them. One by one Jesus washed their feet, calluses and all.
“I’m setting an example for you,” he told them when finished. “You also should do what I have done to you.” I wonder if the disciples ‘got it’ in that moment or they just played along. Years earlier they had been hand-selected by Jesus. From the dregs of smelly farms and fishing docks he would give new meaning to their lives. They became something very special with Jesus. He brought them beyond the plow and the net…or so it seemed.
The disciples were special. But Jesus didn’t call them from the farmers and fishermen to a greater status. No, Jesus called them from the farms and fisheries to serve the farmers and fisherman. He called them from their lives to seek and sere the lost. He called them from who they were to love. He called them to serve and to love for soon he would depart. And I can almost hear the disciples, “What in the world are we going to do?”
It reminds me of a story my grandfather would tell around the Christmas or Thanksgiving table – every year. Recounting the birth of his first child, he told us that he stood there in the waiting room nervous as could be. After waiting an eternity, a nurse came out: “Emilio, come meet your daughter.” He recalls standing with this tiny bundle, “What in the world am I going to do?” And in that moment God, he imagined, gave him the answer: “Just love them.”
I recall when I became a father for the first time, at the adoption of my Emma sitting across from the judge – Emma on her mother’s lap. I remember signing the paper and so suddenly I was a father. I remember, too, the birth of my John. I recall the soft wheezing of a newborn boy with a giant head. The world had immediately changed. Now both were occasions of incomprehensible joy and unutterable elation but they were also moments of some anxiety. “What now?” “What in the world am I going to do?” But in those moments God, I imagined, gave me an answer: “Just love them.”
I think that’s really Jesus’ message to his disciples. He will no longer be with them so he would prepare them to be what he needed them to be. They will stand in front of the crowds. They will stare into the faces of sinners of all shapes and sizes. They will reconcile and make whole the broken and the suffering. The disciples – now without Jesus – I am quite sure had plenty of those moments when they asked: “What in the world are we going to do?” And then I imagine them remembering Jesus with wash basin and towel in hand. They remember his example. They remember his transformative act – washing the feet of his servants. “See? It’s simple,” he says, “I’m sending you out into the world, into those crowds of people from whom I called you.” And here is your answer: Just love them.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Along with the disciples, we can now no longer pretend we are ignorant of the unmistakable mandate: “Love one another!” We cannot say we are unaware. We cannot say we did not understand. If Jesus had only been a little clearer… Our actions betray us when they do not conform to Jesus’ example. Our actions betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words but by the example of our deeds.
On the night before he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread and, when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He said: Take, eat: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. After the supper, he took the cup of wine and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them. He said: “Drink this, all of you: This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
After offering the disciples bread and wine – mystically become his body and blood – Jesus says “do this for the remembrance of me.” He commands them, in other words, to remember. The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection, where the death of Christ and his gift of self, is experienced and lived. In it, we gain life – a foretaste of where he has gone but we cannot yet come.
But – and this, I think, is important – if we choose this table to feed only ourselves, we will never be truly nourished. If we choose this table for our own solace and pardon only and not for strength and renewal, we will always hunger for more. The Lord has set an example. The Eucharist demands that we remember. The Eucharist calls us to remember how the Lord has served and shared.
In the days, weeks, and years ahead – on the journey that we are all taking – we will undoubtedly see the people in our lives (this church gathered here, our neighbors, our community) as its ideal self on its ideal day. We will see every bit of the clean-footed world! We will also undoubtedly see the same a little dirtier – a little less than its ideal self. We will see a people disheartened – souls weary – feet dry and cracked, calloused and worn. And in those times, we will find ourselves wondering… What in the world are we going to do?
And once again the answer will come” “Just love them.”