2 April 2015
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25
1 Corinthians 11:23-26(27-32)
On Palm Sunday I spoke about the great irony that for most of the Church’s existence the institution has aligned itself with secular power and participated in the very kind of oppression and exclusion so abhorrent to anyone committed to the victory of Love over death. Irony, of course, because Jesus himself stood with both the marginal and the powerful and yet refused to be coopted by the latter, refused to be aligned with them and with their cause. His love, his call, his transformational faith and life was for everyone. It was a call to a marginal life, an unexpected life, an inverted life. Jesus subverted the very notion of what power is, of who is truly powerful, and of what really matters. I suggested that Holy Week and Easter was the time when we most clearly can see the powerful, subversive, dangerous message and impact of this, God’s decisive intervention into time and space. Most significantly, Jesus inverts the notion of who the powerful are, what they do, and how they act towards others people.
Often times on Maundy Thursday one has to pick between washing feet and the institution of the Eucharist for the theme of one’s sermon. Feet or Eucharist? That’s the choice, otherwise your message might be a bit of a mess. In fact, the pre-Reformation liturgies never mixed the mass of Maundy Thursday with the washing of feet, a ceremony carried out in the Chapter House after vespers and dinner and before the stripping of the altars and compline. But that’s what we have. Perfect, however, for our purposes.
In each of these actions, presiding over the ritual meal and washing his disciple’s feet, Jesus reveals more about how his leadership, his kingship, God’s sovereignty is unlike that of the rulers of the world, unlike any image of secular power.
Now, kings and princes are well known for throwing great banquets, and ritual meals were a part of every community’s life in the late antique world, so a great man hosting a dinner that has religious significance would not have been a surprise to anyone. At this meal, however, Jesus uses the gathering as a way of showing, of embodying his self-offering, of crystalising his identity as the messiah who will suffer and die and be raised again. He uses it as an opportunity to show his friends what he is doing and how they can be connected with him for ever and always. Jesus is both the host and the meal, for what he offers is nothing less than his very self, his body and in doing so he gives his friends a way to become one with him and with each other.
He tells his friends that whenever they sit at table and break bread and share the cup, whenever they remember him in and through the meal, that no matter what happens to his body, no matter what happens in the hours to follow, that he has given them a piece of his very self and he will never leave them. Jesus gives his friends, in and through the sharing of a meal together, a way forwards, a way of making community, a way of participating in the very present life of God. The ritual meal is thereby transformed from a symbolic performance of royal identity into a sacrament and what might merely have been a sign, using the elements of bread and wine to point to some distant truth, becomes the sacramental presence of God in this moment, the tangible, visible expression of God into the midst of our lives.
And what does that new, different community look like? It looks like the kind of community that washes feet. Jesus washing the disciples feet is a well known, well recognised act of humility. Indeed, historically bishops and abbots and deans and, yes, rectors have washed the feet in imitation of Jesus actions. In the Middle Ages at places like St Denis outside of Paris and Salisbury Cathedral, for example, paupers were rounded up just so that the dignitaries could wash their feet and give them alms. Today, even, the Queen of England gives alms to pensioners as an extension of this tradition. (She does not, however, wash anyone’s feet!). These symbolic acts, however, were very much for show and as a symbol of what a good ruler, a good leader, an important person should be doing. Most of the time, however, this once-a-year performance did not reflect what was happening the rest of the time.
For Jesus, however, his tenderly, lovingly, washing his friend’s feet exemplified what he did all the time, showed forth who he was at his very core, and was consistent with his very nature. Washing his friend's feet, a humiliating thing for a great lord to do, was an act of love and tenderness, a healing act not that dissimilar from the anointing Jesus himself received from the unnamed woman who poured all the expensive nard over him, an act that had scandalised the disciples. These are gestures of abundance, of going the extra mile to offer someone care. In this intimate act the one whose foot is being washed makes herself vulnerable to the washer and the latter must receive that vulnerability without flinching. Ultimately this is not a one-off, something done for show at a critical moment or just once a year in memory of that moment. It is an act that is the culmination of all that Jesus is and all that he has done, pointing to what he will continue to do as he faces his passion and death, and showing us the kind of life we are to lead, the kind of community we are to be.
Making it all the more powerful, all the more transformative, after washing their feet, Jesus then gives his disciples a new commandment, that mandatum novum, that maundy, to love one another as he loves them and to wash each others feet. He asks them to do for each other what he, their leader, has done for them. Foot washing, then, becomes a way of life and orientation towards love, towards loving action, intimate connection with others, and deep caring. This is the example of the king who rode into Jerusalem knowing he was heading to his passion and death. This is the example of our king, that king unlike all others, who gave us a way of being united with his very body, made one with him, and who commanded us to love each other in the deepest, most intimate, and caring way. It is an example that calls us to reexamine our priorities, to see what is truly important. It is an example that calls us to new life in profound relationship with each other and with God, the sources of all that is and the font of Love that flows forth into our very bodies and out again into the world.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Patrick of Ireland, 17 March 2015
© 2015 Andrew Charles Blume