Like many of you, I am quite taken with the new Pope, Francis I. As a lifelong skeptic about Vaticanal things, I find my fascination to be a bit of a surprise. All of his recent gestures—moving into a smaller apartment where he can be part of a community, refusing to wear ermine capes and Prada shoes, paying his own hotel bill and canceling his newspaper subscription—seem to strike just the right note of personal humility.
Perhaps the most striking thing he’s done, though, occurred today. As part of his first Holy Week observance, Pope Francis travelled to Casal del Marmo youth detention center in Rome to wash the feet of twelve young prisoners there. This isn’t a new papal gesture—Pope Benedict did it in 2007—but it is nevertheless in keeping with the new Pope’s care of and advocacy for the poor and the marginalized.
Still, I wonder. Will the Pope, or any of his attendants, ask the twelve young Italian prisoners to return the gesture and wash their feet? I raise the question because, when I’m honest about it, I realize that for me washing your feet is easy. The harder part is letting you wash mine.
This difficulty arises not only from my reservations about revealing my feet in all their imperfection. It arises also from my innate sense that I owe God and you a lot more than you or God owe me. This sense of one-way obligation is broadly shared in our church culture. About a decade or so ago I attended a clergy conference led by Martin Smith, a priest and monk and writer, who told a story about a question he often poses to clergy coming to the monastery on retreat. On the first night he tells them to go back to their rooms and ask themselves what they would like Jesus to do for them. Without fail, he said, the next day the clergy always show up with long lists of what they are supposed to do for Jesus. No, Smith said, you didn’t hear me right. I didn’t want you to list what Jesus wants you to do for him; I asked you to think about what you want Jesus to do for you. Not surprisingly, when the question is put that way, his retreatants have a very hard time coming up with any ideas at all. Jesus do something for me? Isn’t that backwards?
That’s the way it is in this Gospel for Maundy Thursday. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, Peter becomes distraught.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” [John 13]
Though we are tempted to think of Peter as they guy who never quite gets it, in tonight’s Gospel it looks to me as if he responds as any one of us might. Jesus is the teacher, the disciples are his students. The normal order of things in a hierarchical culture is for them to serve him. Jesus calmly but radically turns that hierarchy upside down. He establishes the primary obligation as being on his part, not theirs. He serves them.
Tonight let’s sit with Martin Smith’s question as we think about the events we witness tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. What would you like Jesus to do for you? In our liturgy last Sunday we all shouted “Crucify him!” as part of the dramatized Palm Sunday reading of the Passion Gospel. If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought a lot this Lent about the many and myriad ways in which you regularly let God and Jesus down. Fair enough.
But it’s too simple to say that we are only the crowd in that Gospel. It’s more true to say that we are both the crowd and Jesus—betrayers and betrayed. And tonight Jesus’ act of washing his companions’ feet asks us to think about why God and Jesus are going through this whole experience of betrayal, crucifixion, and death in the first place. They are going through it for you and me. They are going through it because you and I are worth something to them. They are going through it because we’re precious enough in Jesus’ sight for it to be worth his while to wash our feet.
Maundy Thursday is both a penitential and joyous occasion: we gather both to lament Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and to give thanks for Jesus’ gift to us of the Eucharist as the way to be together in the world. As you enter into these three days of betrayal and death and resurrection, what is it that you want God to do for you? What is your need for God right now at this moment in your life? What would grace look like for you now? How do you want God to act toward and for you? How have you been betrayed or misunderstood or mocked, yourself? How would God heal and restore you in the light of that? What would new, risen life look like for you if you dared to ask for it?
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” If you’re like me, you’d probably rather remain in your seat than come forward and have your feet washed. If you’re like me, you are powerfully more conscious of how much you owe than you are of what God wants you to have. I will come forward both to wash and be washed because in so doing I am allowing both God and you to do something for me. And letting that happen is the first step on the road to acknowledging that someone other than me is in charge of the universe.
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus replied to Peter. In one sense we should hear that as judgment. But, in the context of the infinite love which undergirds the mighty acts of these three great days, we should hear that as a promise, too. Jesus washed his companions’ feet; God hears our prayers not because we grovel but because we are loved. Use the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter to ask yourself and God what you need Jesus to do for you. And then do your best to live—creatively and joyously and maybe even with a little bit of risk and a lot of love—into the answer you hear. Amen.