|Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper, painting of Altar of Siena Cathedral in 14th century|
Luke 22: 24-27
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants* are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
On Maundy Thursday, some of us will meet for a simple meal at our parish churches, and afterward, we will worship together. In that worship service, we will observe two different, but complementary practices: Eucharist and foot washing. These two practices reflect the two main gospel passages that have been read at Maundy Thursday services in the Episcopal Church over the years.
Some of us will hear the reading from Luke 22:14-30, from the old Prayer Book lectionary, that tells the story of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Others of us will hear the story of Jesus’s Last Supper from John 13:1-17, 31b-35, after which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
A ribbon of tension runs between these two stories, and pushes against the values of this world, especially as it comes to ideas about authority and right. But I think it’s good to lay those two stories side-by side, because you can see the point at which they come together. At first glance, both Luke 22 and John 13 intersect over issues about “great” and “humble.” In John, Jesus makes very clear that he is setting an example for those who are disciples to follow. In Luke, Jesus says the greatest must be the servant to show that all are equal, and that the greatest action of a leader is serving those he or she is leading without thought to the cost of that leadership, much less what gain they might have from their authority. Talk about a counter-cultural message for our time!
This reminder-- that the kingdom of God often turns on its head all that we think is important-- is not new to these two readings. Much of what we do on Maundy Thursday, no matter what readings we may hear, is familiar—even the meal beforehand. I mean, what is a church without potluck suppers? But the practice on Maundy Thursday that causes the most anxiety for many is the foot-washing that takes place at many parishes on that night. For most of us, foot-washing only happens once a year, at a service that only some of us attend, on an evening in the middle of the week. We think the foot-washing makes us more vulnerable and exposed in front of our friends.
But does it really?
Both Eucharist and footwashing call us to remember the deep bonds of devotion that are formed by having a simple, humble thing done for you, and that you yourself can be part of in doing for others. These two actions together bring together head and heart, hand and foot. It reminds us of the radical grace, tenderness, and love we are called to embody if we are indeed to follow Christ—and how interdependent we all are upon each other and upon God. It is beautiful to bring both of these practices together, if only for one night. To remind us that each time we come together, no matter the location in the liturgical calendar, that we are always looking to be fed and tenderly cared for, and to do likewise for others, all at once.
But both of these practices approach us from our most vulnerable spaces within ourselves, if we sit in silence with their meanings. The practice of Eucharist is the practice of making communion, or community, not just between ourselves and God, but among each other. Long ago, the Eucharist became not “dinner” but something better—it became a feast that was not just about satisfying just the hunger of the body but the hunger of the heart for communion with God and each other. Both of these are about showing our love for each other. Both of these are about remembering not just what we are called to try to believe, but more deeply, to remember how we are called to live. Together. Serving each other. Letting down our barriers and allowing other members of our beloved community to care for us in an intimate, humble way that is completely opposed to the rhythms of most of modern life. Nourished and called to peace. Called to be vulnerable together so that we can remember what it is like to allow ourselves to be cared for with nothing to gain, and to remember the example of Christ calls us to serve each other in complete parity, that there will be no outcasts among us.
Both Eucharist and foot-washing call us to expose our most vulnerable selves before others, and to believe that we are not going to be simply accepted but treasured. Treasured enough to open our arms and our very souls to each other and to Christ Jesus, whose generous love still goes before us, all the way to the tomb, and beyond.
(This was first published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul, March 22, 2016.)