John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
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 will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
For Christians Holy Week each year is a cherished repetition of familiar things: hearing the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday and receiving a palm cross, then each evening of the week devotions and meditations, perhaps re-enacting Christ’s walk to Golgotha with the Stations of the Cross, hearing the stories of His last week in Jerusalem, still teaching them.
Today normally I would have been in Southwark Cathedral with other priests of the diocese for the Chrism Eucharist, receiving the new oils and renewing our priestly vows. The crescendo of Holy Week, before the stark tragedy of Good Friday would be tonight’s service for Maundy Thursday, one of the Church’s most dramatic nights – Jesus at the Last Supper giving us the sacrament of the Eucharist and enacting His new commandment, that we love one another, by washing his disciples feet. Reserving the sacrament for Good Friday’s Eucharist by carrying the bread to the Lady Chapel and then the Vigil, watching with Christ on the night before His death, falling asleep with the disciples.
But this year, as we know only too well, is different.
At the very moment when we most need one another, our community of faith and love, we are separated and alone. The Chrism Eucharist was streamed on You Tube, just the Bishop taking us through the renewal of vows and the blessing of the oils – a stark and beautiful service.
And tonight, no Eucharist except in our hearts, and no foot washing, that annual ritual when we perform an act of service and of love, the washing of feet, and the allowing of our feet to be washed – as much an act of service as the foot washing itself. In churches throughout the Christian world, this little ritual signifies the bonds of love and service that hold us together in Christian communities showing ourselves and the world that we are, in fact, the Body of Christ.
Tonight how I shall miss this annual task of pouring water over feet, patting them dry with the towel, each of you pulling off a sock, unlacing a shoe, presenting, a little shyly perhaps, the beloved feet of our congregation, some that are older and have walked many miles, athletic feet, hardworking feet, pretty feet with a little touch of polish, all as individual as their owners. It is a moving priestly task that binds us together.
And all of these feet underline the significance, the beauty of the incarnation. Christ’s body, broken for us.
And when this over, and we are together again and we meet Him on the altar in bread and wine, we must remember that it is not only Christ the divine Son of God that we meet there. It is also Jesus the man, son of Mary, born as we are born and about to die as we die. We meet in bread and wine the man who cried at Lazarus’ grave, the man who was afraid in the Garden, and asked for the cup to be taken from Him, but who still carried his Cross to Golgotha, the human man who, whilst nailed to a Cross in agony, thought of his Mother and gave her to John to care for.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
His washing of their feet demonstrated this love very vividly. Hot, tired and dirty feet after a journey were always washed on arrival but this was usually a task for female servants. Jesus took this task on himself. He says to the disciples: ‘If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ He was stressing that to care for others, especially in menial tasks, is to show real love. Jesus was not washing their feet as a servant, but as their friend and teacher, He does it from a position of freedom and strength.
And what of Peter?
“You will never wash my feet” he says to Jesus. Perhaps he is embarrassed, perhaps he feels unworthy, emotions we can all relate to. Jesus explains to Him the dynamics of love and service. He says that unless Peter allows Jesus to perform this menial act of love for him, reversing the normal way of things, Peter can have no “share” with Him. He cannot be one with Christ in love and service, cannot become part of the Body of Christ. Impetuous Peter then wants all of him washed.
Where will the foot washing take place this year? Perhaps it is already taking place. In little acts of kindness, the prescription collected, the shopping left of the step. It is already taking place in big heroic acts of self-sacrifice in hospitals, in care homes, on buses and in supermarkets. Foot washing is taking place in the soothing of fears, in the calming of anxieties, in making new bonds between us, in recognising that we are all one, held together by our common humanity. Foot washing is taking place in the growing recognition of our brother and sisterhood, that we are all dependent on one another, that Christ the Man for all is in the world and is beside us and with us.