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.