Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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 full readings for today’s liturgy can be found here.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the Haggadah, the ancient Jewish text for the Passover meal (the Seder), the youngest child present always asks the question, “Why is this night different from every other night?” It’s an important question, a question pious Jews have been asking for almost two thousand years: Why is this night different from every other night?
For us, there are several answers. Liturgically, this is the night that we wash each other’s feet. We process up to the front of the church and we kneel down and we imitate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s one of the most moving services of the year, and we do it every year. But this year is not like every other year. I’ll circle back to that idea later.
Biblically, it’s a compelling story, full of mystery and pathos: it’s heartbreaking, and it’s unique. We find this story only in John’s gospel, and John’s gospel is not like any of the other gospel. Jesus has gathered with his disciples, his closest friends, for a final meal. And John tells us that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and understood the agony that was waiting for him. It’s an interesting question: if you knew you were about to die, what would you say to those you love the most. But Jesus does more than tell them—he shows them, because words are sometimes poor vehicles to carry the cargo of our most profound emotions.
So, after Jesus and his disciples have eaten, Jesus removes his robe, ties a towel around himself and begins washing his disciples’ feet. We may lose some of the stunning power of this shocking display. In that culture, at that time, washing another person’s feet was considered degrading work, work for slaves. In fact, if a Jew had a Jewish slave, they wouldn’t even ask a Jewish slave to wash their feet. To wash someone’s feet was a shameful, humiliating task. And that humiliation offered a mere taste of the indignities that lay ahead—being stripped, beaten, whipped, and hung up on a tree like a scarecrow.
And so, we can understand Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed by his Lord, his rabbi. Not surprisingly, Peter feels embarrassment at watching his teacher debase himself in this way. Some of us may have shared that unease on occasion as we participate in this liturgy. And yet, Jesus tells us, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
It’s worth noting that Jesus washes the feet of all of the disciples that night. He washes the feet of the disciple who will betray him, the disciple who will deny him, and those who will abandon him. Real love means more than being nice, or romance, or the kind of love that ends up on Hallmark cards. Real love doesn’t always look like puppies, or glitter or rainbows. Real love requires strength, and often demands self-sacrifice—putting the good of someone else first, even when it hurts. Real love will sometimes call upon us to climb our own Golgotha. Love calls us into ever widening, ever more expansive, ever deepening, ever more daring circles of caring. Real love cannot remain in the shallow end of the pool.
Jesus stands ready to wash our feet as well, washing away our insecurities, scrubbing off our shame, rinsing our weariness away. Jesus stands ready to wash our feet even when we deny him, betray him, abandon him, and perhaps even worse, ignore him. And that, my brothers and sisters, is a very tough love. That kind of love stares right into the eyes of fear and humiliation, mockery and betrayal, and even death, and says: “Do you very worst. And when you are done, I will still be here.”
So, this year, this night, is not like any other night. We will not exchange the sign of peace. We will not break the bread; we will not drink the wine. We will not get on our knees and wash each other’s feet. But tonight, we will not do those things for the same reason that we normally do them. Tonight is different because tonight love means that we remain in our homes, rather than joining together. Tonight, we will not gather together because, in a time of pandemic, that’s not a very loving thing to do. In a time of contagion, with so many at risk, that’s not what love looks like. But the reason why we won’t do those things tonight is the same reason we do them every other year: because we love each other.
We observe the sacrament of this night, and rest assured, this is a sacramental act (regardless of what the Prayer Book purists tell you) when we reach out to those who are lonely, when we read to a child who needs a friend, when we volunteer at a food bank, or when we smile at a stranger. You see, we call this Maundy Thursday, a name which comes from the Latin word for commandment, mandatum. And the commandment wasn’t “wash each others’ feet.” The commandment was “love one another, as I have loved you.” Love one another, even when we’re not especially lovable. Maybe especially when we’re not lovable. Love one another, even when we let each other down. Love one another, even when it’s hard. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020