Thursday 9 April 2020
Unfortunately, this Maundy Thursday, we are not able to undertake the ritual washing of feet to re-enact Jesus prophetic action at the Lat Supper. Feet must feel like the forgotten appendages during the Covid – 19 pandemic that we are currently enduring. There is no shortage of reminders to wash our hands regularly, but no one gives a thought to regular feet washing.
It made me think that feet are really given a pretty poor deal all around. They really do put in a lot of hard yards for us, literally, getting us from one place to another. While we do have a profession, podiatry, whose particular concern is the care of feet, it must be said that the concern is more about maintenance and repair, not about aesthetics. We might hear someone say: “Have you seen Priscilla lately. I swear she has a had a nose job!” But have you ever heard anyone say: “Isn’t Roderick looking wonderful since he had his feet done?” We only tend to give feet attention when they are playing up, not out of a desire to make them more beautiful like other parts of our anatomy.
I was surprised to find when I googled that there is such a thing as cosmetic surgery for feet. Did you know you could have any of the following: toe lengthening; toe shortening; fat injections into the pads of your feet; nail restoration; hair removal or foot narrowing? Perhaps feet are fighting back.
And yet, perhaps it is because the feet are such a humble and ill-treated part of our bodies that Jesus chose washing his disciples’ feet as a way of symbolically challenging them to act humbly towards one another – to be as servants towards each other.
I know that the washing of feet of guests before a meal was a common practice in those days, but even so, it does appear that it spoke of a certain humility. It was the work of the servant class and certainly not the regular activity of a famous rabbi. We can be sure of this by the reaction of the impetuous Peter who, initially will not see his Lord abase himself like this. It is only after Jesus makes it clear to Peter that no one who does not accept the need for such humility and service on the part of all is able to have any part of him.
Jesus appears to have chosen this activity above any others to show his followers how he wanted them to behave towards one another.
And to make his lesson complete, he goes on to give the disciples his new commandment. “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 shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This was not some airy-fairy direction pulled out of mid-air. The new commandment is firmly grounded in the example that Jesus has just given to the disciples in his servant-like action of washing their feet. The love that they show towards one another has to be grounded in action, even in action that might seem infra-dig at times. And more than that, it should be a distinguishing feature of his followers. “By this every one shall know that you are my disciples”.
The 4th-century theologian Jerome tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.”
This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”
“Because,” John replied, “it is Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”
We should take notice of the word “only”. It may give the impression that it is not much – this is all you have to do, piece of cake. Jesus action at the Last Supper, when he got up and assumed the role of a servant among his disciples and washed their feet should remind us that this loving one another is not always so easy. It needs to be worked at. It calls on us to be humble, as Jesus was humble. In the words of St Paul:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in us: “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 shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen