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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The joy of washing peoples' feet

Sounds creepy, right?  Right.

I am one of those people who is not overly fond of feet, but when it comes to the footwashing which is traditional on Maundy Thursday, all I can say is if you have never participated in it, you probably can't understand.

On Maundy Thursday (Maundy being derived from the Latin phrase mandatum novum, literally "new mandate" from Jesus' words "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you from John 13:1-35), we do a number of things.  We observe the Last Supper, the institution of what has become the principal sacrament for many Christians, the Eucharist.

I should perhaps go on a tangent here and note that the word Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word Communion (which is often used interchangeably with Eucharist) comes from the Latin root from which we derive the words common and community.  The point of communion is not that we are committing an act of cannibalism.  It is that we are expressing gratitude for the gifts of the earth, of which we are an integral part.

Sharing a meal was and is perhaps still one of the most intimate activities human beings can engage in.  Today, I am grateful my family did not eat while watching TV.  We are at a round table where we shared our days with each other.  Sometimes there were fights, but many of my cherished childhood memories are around the dinner table.

Even if we assume Jesus had not divine powers of prognostication, we know he wasn't an idiot.  He knew exactly what was coming to him in Jerusalem.  He had poked the hornet's nest of political, religious and social privilege, and that NEVER goes over well for the little guy.

So try to imagine being Jesus, knowing what is likely to happen to you.  Wouldn't you want to spend some quality time with your loved ones?  That is what the Last Supper is about.

In part.

The other part involves Jesus washing the disciples' feet.  This would have been an amazing gesture to the disciples.  Foot washing was common in the ancient Middle East.  The hot dry climate and the lack of modern transportation meant that if you were hosting a dinner, your guests had likely had to walk a fair distance over hot earth, wearing sandals to boot.  So it was customary for a host to provide water to refresh their guests' feet.

But here is the important point: this was such a humble (and dare I say humiliating) task that it was strictly the purview of the lowliest servant in the house.  The host himself would never debase himself like that, and apparently in wealthy households that had a number of servants, the pecking order meant that this task was even beneath most servants.

And yet Jesus, whom the disciples call Lord and Master and Rabbi and Teacher and Friend debased himself before them in order to wash all their feet.  This is so scandalous that Peter protests, misunderstanding what Jesus is doing.  Peter says, "If you are going to wash my feet, then wash my hands and head also".

But in typical Peter fashion, he has misunderstood what is happening.  Peter thinks Jesus is literally washing him, when in reality his actions have much less to do with Peter and the disciples than they have to do with him.

Jesus explains that he is not washing them.  He is giving them an example of what they should do to one another.

Now obviously, that does not that every Christian should be a chiropodist or podiatrist.  He is not even talking about foot washing specifically per se.

He is talking about reaching out to serve one another in humility.

This is increasingly difficult in our "serve-yourself" culture, and many people rail at the very concept that we should be humble.  But I issue you a challenge, and I would love to hear how it turns out.

Try love.

Try reaching out in kindness when your natural impulse is to snap and give the other person a piece of your mind.

The mind-blowing thing is that according to this Gospel passage, Jesus even washed Judas' feet, knowing full well that Judas had already betrayed him.  Maybe it was his last attempt to sway Judas back, but either way, Jesus chose kindness, integrity, humility and love when most of us would have been livid with rage and pain.

Try reaching out with integrity and love today.  Then tell me how you feel.

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