We began Holy Week this year differently – under authority by responding to instructions to minimise social contact, with, indeed, churches closed and celebrations being done privately. This, for me, threw into relief just how Jesus subverts our normal pecking order, our normal jostling for power and prestige. In the opening Gospel of Palm Sunday, normally read just before we would process with palms, we had the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey colt. Leaders before and since have tended to come in state and power – with impressive transport and retinues. Jesus totally overturns all our expectations about how a leader should behave. Yet the example he invites us to copy was all too easily lost sight of.
Somewhere near Oxford there is a church with a stone baptismal font bearing carvings of the seven sacraments – a rare survivor of Reformation iconoclasm. The one representing confirmation shows a mounted figure – the bishop – riding between two lines of people. Apparently, on the rare occasions when a bishop arrived to celebrate the sacrament the candidates were lined up before him as he passed through. The pious bishops were the ones who got down from their (high) horse.
In today’s gospel (John 13: 1-15) Jesus takes on himself the role of a slave and washes the disciples’ feet, provoking a protest from Peter. Peter seems threatened by this model of servant leadership – you get the feeling that he would have been far happier if the positions had been reversed and he was washing Jesus’ feet. Normally when someone came in from outside in the time of Jesus their feet would have been washed of the dust and grime of travel by slaves, but there was one exception to this rule: a wife could wash her husband’s feet, not because she was his slave, but because they were one body.
When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples he acts out a kind of prophetic sign or sacrament of his whole life and mission. It is a sacrament in that God shows us what he does and does what he shows us. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God. St John emphasises this by saying that he ‘lays down’ his outer garment before he begins; and afterwards ‘takes it up again’ – the same language that he has used of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep, and taking it up again. On the night he was betrayed he invites his disciples to follow him in that way of sacrifice, showing that he who loses his life will save it; the ultimate Christian paradox. John’s teaching on Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist is given earlier in his gospel on the teaching of Jesus that he is the bread of life, the bread from heaven that gives life (ch 6 ff, which in Dominican communities is read during the silent meal on Good Friday); here, he shows us what it means. The washing of the feet is the eucharist: the acting out of eucharistic living, of loving service to each other in the Lord and following his example.
The other gospels focus on the meal, yet there is still this call to a shocking level of intimacy and communion that John gives us in Jesus’ washing of feet. To be part of a meal is to take part in a ritual – this is not just grabbing food on the go, or a quick sandwich on the move or at one’s desk or in front of a screen, or scavenging at an open fridge door. Opinion is divided as to whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal, but even if not it would certainly have been a ritual one, structured by praising and thanking God and his blessings in the context of the forthcoming great feast.
Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and says ‘this is my body, given up for you’ and then a cup, blessed and shared as a sign of the new covenant, poured out like the blood of a sacrificial lamb – of which St Paul, in one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, reminds the Corinthians that he is passing on what he has received, what has been handed down in the Christian communities, what the Lord commanded be done in remembrance of him.
Here again God takes human rituals of friendship and solidarity and intensifies them. One of the most beautiful things I can recall seeing was when I was in a restaurant with a young couple who were feeding each other dessert. It was as intimate as a parent feeding a young child, if a bit less expected among adults. And precisely this is the symbolism of Jesus taking the cup, blessing it and passing it around. While breaking bread and dipping the morsel into a central dish would have been common behaviour at table in Jesus’ time, sharing drinking vessels -especially in a ritual context – would not have been. This was his big innovation in the rituals of dining. Again, cups can be shared, but usually for us rarely, especially in public and formal occasions except for intimate companions or between parent and child.
The footwashing and the one cup, blessed and shared, remind us of the intimacy with which God comes to us and the level of love and trust we should show each other in our living-out of this gift. Of course this too has tended to be lost sight of, with the reification of the sign into only the celebrant receiving the Precious Blood, or alternately this being dispensed in many small vessels – both extremes rather missing the point.
And this year, under the necessary constraints to control a pandemic, what are we to do? I would suggest that the washing of the feet is taking place in the life-giving charity we are showing each other: in homes between family members, on social media where people support and sustain one another, in all the essential but often poorly-paid workers keeping society together and above all of course in hospitals and care homes – this very widespread example of love in action reminds us of what this liturgical playacting is supposed to point us toward.
‘Who is this?’ people asked, as Jesus, riding on an ass, with a crowd of supporters, arrived in Jerusalem, creating something of a stir (Matthew 21: 10), on the first day of what we know as Holy Week.
It’s the question of his identity. On this occasion it wasn’t prompted by anything that he said. It was what he did — riding into town on an ass. He was accompanied by excited, even elated followers, some spreading their clothes along the way, like rolling out the red carpet, while others were strewing the road with branches from the trees — hence the palms — it was standard practice at the time to lay down leaves and flowers on the street for a victory parade. They were shouting — ‘Hosanna for the son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. To that extent they knew who he was.
More specifically, in this cavalcade, riding on a she-ass, more specifically, Jesus was symbolically affirming his understanding of leadership and authority.
The symbolism of riding on an ass does not escape Matthew (21: 4-5). Weaving together quotations from Isaiah and Zechariah he explains that by choosing a she-ass to carry him into the holy city Jesus was fulfilling an age-old prophecy, signalling to the people — ‘the daughter of Sion’ — that their king had come — ‘humbly’. Like people everywhere, they had seen enough of powerful kings in the rulers of Babylon and now, under Roman occupation, they had troops clattering through the streets in their chariots. They might recall stories of the legendary Alexander the Great’s entrance into Jerusalem in 332 BC riding arrogantly high on his magnificent warhorse.
In contrast, as if mocking it, Jesus turns it upside down. No king in those days, no Roman imperial authority figure, no country’s leader in our time either, would ever appear so absurdly on the back of an ass. It’s almost a joke — not organized enough to count even as a protest march. If this is Jesus finally beginning to reveal his identity then isn’t he doing so by parodying everything that would naturally exhibit leadership, power and authority?
Who is this man? Who is he for us? We begin to glimpse the answer in the garden.
Gethsemane provides the final lesson in discipleship given by Jesus before his execution and exaltation, and that lesson is rooted in prayer.
After establishing his communion with his disciples at the last supper Jesus for once takes them with him as he withdraws to pray, further emphasising the importance of this by picking out Peter and the sons of Zebedee, those who had witnessed his transfiguration on the mountain. Jesus prays alone, as on previous nights, but asks that they remain close and support him in his distress. His prayer allows us some sense of the struggle in the soul of Jesus, and suggests why he wishes the support of those who had been closest to him in his ministry.
We cannot fully penetrate the mystery of the agony of God’s unique Son; we might see this in simplistic terms as a clash of wills: the human will of Jesus understandably recoiling from the appalling destructiveness of what is happening, pleading that if at all possible the cup of this suffering might pass from him without his having to drink of it, so that he might even at this late moment bypass the agony of the cross. Yet here as elsewhere Jesus submits himself, however reluctantly, to the will of his Father; with the will of the Son abandoning itself completely, reflecting completely the will of the Father.
Maximus the Confessor saw in Jesus’s struggle the final and most stark test of his obedience. In his view, our wills were created to be in harmony with the divine will. When we sin, our wills are disordered, no longer being in harmony with God’s will. The ultimate test of Jesus’s obedience then, is depicted here in his prayer: praying first that if it is possible, that this cup pass; and then, nevertheless, that the Father’s will be done. St Matthew shows how this prayer of Jesus is patterned on the one Jesus has taught to his disciples earlier, the Lord’s prayer, perhaps so affirming that Jesus’s relationship to the Father remained consistent throughout his life unto death.
The disciples, like ourselves, do not display such consistency of purpose. Told to watch with Jesus, perhaps even eager to do so, they fail. We are given no answer to the problem of the weakness of the disciples’ and of our own flesh, other than that it is to be admitted and not to be underestimated. Jesus repeatedly finding his disciples failing him emphasises to him that the cup will not pass: he will go through his trial without the help of his disciples, who will, indeed, abandon him. Yet the prayer of Jesus is not without effect: it begins with him sorrowful and prostrate, and ends with him resolutely facing the approaching crisis. The Father is silent – what word has the Father except the Son? – yet Jesus’s human will is now set unflinchingly towards the fulfilment of his Father’s will, even to death on a cross.
The Son’s sacrifice begins here, in the offering and transition of his human will into obedient harmony with the Father’s will irrespective of what that might cost. Here in Jesus we see our wounded nature healed, restored to its real self; and also glimpse something of the challenge and cost our discipleship imposes on us.
Jesus knows their, and our, weakness; knows that the disciples are not yet ready to enter the trial with him, to drink the cup, to share his hour. But Jesus does not give up on them, does not give up on us. His final, dynamic command, ‘Arise, let us go’ – the last words Jesus will speak to his disciples in Matthew’s account before the resurrection – indicates Jesus still wants their company, even if they – and we – stumble and fall away.
Arise, let us go: Jesus has uttered this command before, at the beginning of the preaching of the kingdom. Even though the disciples will scatter in failure and fear, Jesus has told them that after he has been raised he will go before them, as a shepherd leading his flock, into Galilee. Arise, let us go: no matter what our failures have been, no matter what the trials we fear to face, the crosses we fear to bear, we can trust that the Lord is with us, and leads us on where he has gone, into Galilee of the nations, into life with God.