Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
A FRIEND of mine once found himself on a holiday cruise with one of his old teachers. It was a tricky moment. Hideous recollections of work not handed in on time came flooding back.
In fact the teacher, a prodigious publisher with an international reputation, turned out to be very easy and enjoyable company. At one point, as they paddled in the Aegean, the former pupil commented on how strange it was to feel so relaxed in the company of such a great man. “If only I’d removed my shoes and socks more often,” came the reply, “you would have seen that I too have feet of clay.”
The point was well made. Sensible shoes, work boots that comply with health-and-safety regulations, school uniform, the expectations of others, a fashion statement, a wet and chilly climate: these are all reasons why our feet might be swathed in shoes and socks, and rarely, if ever, seen. Tonight, however, the shoes and socks come off.
Some churches follow the ancient custom of the mandatum, the command of Jesus to “wash one another’s feet”. Twelve people will have their feet washed by the celebrant of the eucharist. This is one theory of where we get the name Maundy Thursday, when the Queen distributes Maundy money.
Until the late-17th century, the convention was that the sovereign also washed the feet of the poor. This was then done instead by the Archbishop of York, until the mid-19th century, when it was given up altogether.
For both the celebrant and the recipient of this ancient ministry of re-enactment, there is a strange new encounter. We reveal in public those private parts of our bodies that provide most of us with mobility, and we feel a degree of vulnerability. Will they be grubby, sweaty, or smelly? Do I have clean socks on, with no holes in? Will I be able to stretch down to take my shoe off, and get it on again? What will the Vicar think?
By contrast, the priest who is celebrating this rite has the extraordinary experience of seeing a whole range of statements about the human condition. Some feet are gnarled by age or hard work, toes are bent by fashion or crippling illness, or there is a youthful foot, strong and supple, yet to grow into adulthood.
The task of washing these feet is one of devotion. It goes deep into identification with Jesus. The final part of the ceremony is that you kiss the foot you have just washed — a symbolic gesture, similar to what we term the “kiss of peace” in the eucharist.
In the liturgical tradition, the kiss is a sign of veneration and love. Many priests kiss the gospel book and the altar as a statement that both are the place of encounter with Jesus. Kissing the foot that has just been washed similarly indicates a place of meeting.
In his poem “God’s grandeur”, Gerard Manley Hopkins identifies the way the way we put shoes on our feet as a symbol of human alienation from the knowledge of God in the beauty of creation. Like modern-day environmentalists, he describes creation as damaged by our misuse, “smeared with human trade and toil”, concluding with the observation, “nor can foot feel, being shod”. This metaphor for spiritual disintegration helps to explain the liberation that we are invited to receive as it is acted out by the 12 who represent us all in the Maundy eucharist.
The washing of feet by Jesus is a statement that calls us to a particular kind of receptivity. Gone are the defences; we are no longer shod. Barefooted, we recover a new awareness of our physicality, and a slight sense of what it might be like to belong to the poverty of the developing world, not the affluence of the Western one.
Without your shoes and socks, it is difficult to stand on your dignity. We are liberated from being in control, humbled by the uncomfortable reception of someone else’s veneration. Aware that we, too, have feet of clay, we can, perhaps, become more capable of identifying with the sum of human experience.
William Blake wrote “and we are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love”. How difficult that is. Peter found it almost unbearable, and often so do we. But the love of God is driven by delight in what can never be eradicated from us: the nature of our making in the image and likeness of God.
At the meal that follows the foot-washing, Jesus will say: “This is my body.” His feet and hands will feel what we truly are — people who carry suffering and death within us. But in his body he will also reveal something deeper than that within the human frame. He will reveal the capacity to receive the breath of new life. This liberates him, and us, from the death that puts its marks on his feet and hands.
In the final stanza of his poem, Hopkins exactly captures this resurrection hope. The sun that rises in the east is the ultimate symbol of the resurrection, the miracle of new creation that seems to be brought about as the Holy Ghost broods, like a mother hen. Warmed by her breast, the life within the egg — or the tomb — finally breaks out:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the LORD. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
Beloved: 23I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”