Foot-washing ceremonies during church services are awkward and very humbling. Unlike a communion service, I have never looked forward to the Maundy Thursday service of foot-washing. There is something about someone touching my feet or me having to touch theirs that is uncomfortable and something I would prefer to avoid. The root of this practice goes all the way back to Abram when the three angelic guests show up and tells them to rest beneath the tree while he goes to fetch a bowl of water to wash their feet in Genesis 18:4. And it runs throughout the Old Testament. Hospitality is stressed in all three of the religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; so much so, that all three stress that mistreatment of strangers brings divine wrath.
Philoxenia is the Greek word used for one who loves strangers (this group includes refugees, foreigners, anyone who lacked community, or were without tribe). Hospitality meant that a person welcomed the stranger into not only their country, their community but also their homes. To welcome a stranger into your home also meant that you were to break bread (share a lavish meal), offer protection and a place to rest, and to provide water for washing their feet. To refuse hospitality was an insult and brought great shame on your home.
Foot washing either took place on arrival or before the meal.
In Middle Eastern custom, hospitality was an expression of morality and obedience to God.
Then we come to the Gospel of John.
"Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end," is how John begins chapter thirteen of the Last Supper. This whole meal is under girded by Christ's love for his disciples. Even as he's about to go to the cross, his thoughts are on his disciples.
John then counters the love of Christ with the betrayal of Judas, "During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him . . ." How long had the seeds been planted for Judas' betrayal? Many historians think it began with Judas beginning to become disillusioned with the Messiah he had hoped for in Christ with the one Jesus was when Christ taught the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly, Judas, who was hoping for a Messiah to overthrow Roman oppression and restore Israel, would have been deeply disgusted and disappointed with a message that says, "Blessed are the meek," "Blessed are the peacemakers," "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, " and to "Love your enemies."
How long had he struggled with his love for Jesus and his frustration and anger that Christ wasn't raising up an army to defeat the Romans?
". . . Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel wrapped around him."
Jesus, the Son of God, the Beginning and the End, the Word made flesh, the one from whom all of creation flowed, was kneeling, humbling himself and washing the feet of his disciples. All of them. He washed the feet of the betrayer, the denier, the doubter and of all those who had been scrambling about which of them was the greatest in the kingdom and would soon be scrambling to get away from Jesus to save their own skins. It is mind boggling to truly think about this servant's act.
Which disciple did he begin with?
The scriptures don't tell us. I would not have been surprised if it had been Judas Iscariot; after all, John just counterposed the love of the Savior with the hatred in Judas' own heart. These two stand in opposition with each other and, yet, Jesus still kneels and washes the betrayer's feet. Why? Was he still offering love to Judas to remind him, "I will always love you even in your betrayal of me?" Certainly Judas and Peter would betray Christ in their own ways, but the betrayal was not the greater sin. The greater sin was that Judas believed his sin was greater than the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. Judas would feel remorse, but only Peter would feel repentance. Only Peter realized that the love of Christ is greater than his own failings, that Christ is faithful even when he is not.
How would Judas have reacted to the Messiah doing this? Was he disgusted? Confused? Could he meet the eyes of Jesus? Did he look away? Did he want to run away at that moment?
This is an act of love towards those who had claimed to love him, claimed to be willing to die for him, and in whom Jesus had poured himself daily into for the last three years. None of them would stay awake and watch as he prayed in the garden. All of them would scatter and flee. Judas would betray him and Peter would deny him three times. Yet, in this upper room, filled with the knowledge of what was about to come, Jesus lowered himself yet again and showed that the least of these was the greatest, that the deepest act of love one could perform was one of service to another. As Pope Francis has said, "Christ washing the the feet of his disciples was an act that spoke louder than words."Christ silenced their bickering and jockeying for power and to sit at the right hand of Christ in his kingdom. Christ was showing through action that the kingdom was not built on the power of serving over someone, but of out serving someone.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter was Peter and misunderstood yet again. "Lord, do you wash my feet?" He must have been shocked and incredulous at his Master taking on such a menial and demeaning task as washing his filthy feet (covered in dust and probably sewage that was in the streets).
What kind of a king would do this?
Well, until 1689, monarchs did. After Christ, they honored this faith tradition by washing the feet of the poor. Then, under the reign of William and Mary (1689-1702), this tradition was changed from washing the feet to giving the poor a coin that was especially minted for this Good Friday tradition. Like many, they chose giving money over lowering themselves to an act of service.
Yet here was Christ, the Savior and Lord, kneeling in an act of submission, supplication and humility. He was, as he had always done, mirrored how they were to act in this world as his followers. "You will know my followers by their love." He was showing them in a way that would have been shocking and unsettling to them. That's why Peter is taken aback. Jesus is showing what he was teaching, "But I am among you as the one who serves." But Peter pulls back from this act and says, "You shall never wash my feet!" It was a boast of unworthiness and misunderstanding the very mission Christ came for.
Did Jesus sigh and look at Peter with sadness? Did he think about the acts of denial Peter would soon commit? Was there love in Christ's eyes as he looked at this man, this coarse and rough fisherman, when he replied, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me"? If you cannot understand what I'm doing, Peter, if you cannot see that to this is the very kingdom I came for, then you cannot be a part of it.
Peter in all of his brash "I'm all in" attitude, he goes full throttle forward and overboard with, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Peter is never a less is more kind of guy. He acts and reacts without even considering or contemplating what he's saying.
Yet only Peter vocalizes his misunderstanding. The rest, as it is recorded in the gospels, are silent. Were they embarrassed and did not know how to react or respond? Was it awkward?
"When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place . . ." I love that last part "resumed his place." It meant not only at the table but as their rabbi. And, indeed, he was about to teach them what he just showed them. "Do you understand what I have done to you?" Clearly the answer was a resounding and unspoken, "NO!" "You call me Rabbi and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."
How would I have reacted if I had been one of the disciples? How would I have reacted at Christ holding my naked, dirty foot in his hand? Would I resist, like Peter did? Would I tell him "Never, Lord"?
Often it is easier being the one showing love than the one receiving it. Often we feel more uncomfortable when we are on the receiving end of a compliment or getting a gift or being loved. Psychologists have studied this and have come up with five reasons for why this is (according to Dr. John Amodeo):
1. Defense against intimacy: to the extent that a person fears intimacy, they disavow the moment of connection between another person who is showing them affection
2. Letting go of control: When we are the giver, we're in control. When we are on the receiving in, we are more vulnerable and have to surrender ourselves to the moment of someone else's generosity
3. Fear of strings attached: We begin to question the motives of the other person and wonder what they want from us.
4. We believe it is selfish to receive.
5. A self-imposed pressure to reciprocate: We don't want to be in someone else's debt.
Yet to follow Christ, we must have intimacy with him. To acknowledge him as our Lord and Savior is to let go of control and cry out, "I surrender all!" He was teaching his disciples that, yes, they were to reciprocate, but not with him. Instead, they were to go out and love and serve and wash the feet of others so that they might be drawn to Christ through our loving acts.
Certainly, I am one of those who are uncomfortable receiving attention or compliments and would rather be left alone to fade into the background. I balk at the mere notion of washing the feet of another or having someone else wash mine (this also stems from being ticklish). Yet Christ bids us to do the same.
Could I have washed the feet of others who I knew were going to betray me, deny me and abandon me in my greatest hour of need as he did? No, not at all. I couldn't even find the love to wash the feet of those I consider dear and closest to my heart.
And Christ is calling me to love more than those I would choose to love, but those I cannot even tolerate. If I'm being completely honest, I would cringe at the notion of washing the feet of Donald Trump or Steven Bannon. Yet the Christ I claim to follow would.
How many others would think this way of washing the feet of Barack Obama? Or Hilary Clinton?
How about someone of another race or religion?
How about a spouse that has betrayed you through infidelity?
Or a friend who stabbed you in the back? Or lied to you?
Or a parent who abandoned you?
How many others would want to get out of washing the feet of immigrants? Refugees? The poor? Drug addicts?
Self-abase myself for a homeless person? One who smells and reeks of alcohol and urine and earth and sweat? One whose feet are filthy and whose toenails are hard and brittle and emit a powerful stench?
Just the idea makes me uneasy and unsettled. I struggle to see this act as Christ sees it: as a pathway to him, to God, to Divine love, Do I see the feet of others as Christ's feet?
The poet and author, Christian Wiman, was correct when he wrote, "We should be suspicious when God's call conforms so neatly to our own inclinations." Indeed we are most often called to the hard and holy way. Certainly there is no better way to see this than in feet washing. Who among us would say that we want to be called to wash the feet of others? Of our enemies? Of those we dislike and are disgusted by? Or even those people we call friends?
As he washed the feet of Judas, even in that moment, Christ was still offering him his love and grace. And he would do the same for us. And when we have experienced this love and grace, then, we, too, should do likewise.
The Divine Mystery of Incarnation is vulnerability. Vulnerable to love enough to be wounded and hurt. Vulnerable enough to stoop to wash the dirty, disgusting feet of others. Vulnerable enough to die on a cross. Yet only that kind of vulnerability offers us the power of resurrection and redemption.
I would like to end this piece by saying that I have gotten over my discomfort, but I haven't.
Perhaps, like Judas, this is not an issue of washing feet, but of washing the heart. Perhaps I fear the idea of Christ stopping to wash my feet because, deep inside myself, I fear intimacy with him?
"Lord, no," I might say, "you can't. You don't know . . ."
The pride, the lust, the fear, the anger . . . .
But he does.
Just as he knew what each of the disciples were feeling inside. He knew Judas' fear that had turned to hatred at being disappointed, because we often find that Christ isn't the Messiah we wanted but the one we desperately needed. He is the one who washes the feet of the least worthy and, in so doing, makes them worthy. Just as he called the disciples to him, he is reminding each of us, "I choose you. You are mine." This selfless act of love only pointed to the greater one to come by way of the cross and the grave. As he broke the bread and had them drink the wine with, "Do this in remembrance of me."So, too, he washed their feet. And he went to the cross and hung there to remind us, "You are worth this." As John 13:1 reminds us, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." He loved his own, which is not just his disciples but us. "To the end" is not the cross but to the end of all time. His love for us is without limit.
The son of God wants to humble himself to clean the muck and filth from us by, first washing our feet as tenderly as a parent would a newborn, and then through the cross. God in man kneels before us to clean us. It is an act that is without shame, without pride, without concern for dignity or authority. It is the Father running without a thought for his social standing in the world but caring only that his prodigal son is returning home. In embracing and kissing that son, the Father pays no regard to the stench and filth of the pig sty that covers his boy because this is his boy. Think of that, the God of this universe runs to embrace you as you are because he wants to restore you to your status as son and daughter. That is why Christ kneels before you to wash your feet and why he asks us to wash the feet of others so they, too, might return home to the Father that loves them.
"As I have done for you," Christ speaks to us, "I ask that you do for others."
Because he loves us, he gives us a choice. Love is always vulnerable enough to give us the choice to turn away or accept him, to do as he asks or to rebuff him . . . He stands at the door and knocks. Not kicks it down or bangs heavily against it.
He washes our feet.
Now what will we do for him?