John 13:1-17, 31b-35
It’s simple, really, this night. Even though we come together in the majesty of this great Cathedral, in what is arguably the most powerful city in the world, it’s simple, really, this holy night.
Simple because we will do things we experience all the time. We’ll hear the sound of water being poured from a pitcher into a basin, feel the coolness as it touches our skin, feel the dryness of a welcome soft towel and the touch of another human being, maybe we’ll have that feeling we get when we’ve tended to the need of a friend or feel the warmth of being included in a meal with others. We’ll be taken aback somewhat at the end of the evening in seeing the table cleared and all linens and decorations removed. We’ll notice lights dimmed and then the quiet of the night as we go back home. Simple? Yes. And yet this holy night in this holy week is anything but easy.
We began this holy week last Sunday with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and perhaps we allowed ourselves to imagine that day. We waved our palm branches, sang “Hosanna!” and then minutes later shouted with the crowd, “Crucify him!” And only moments after that, we came to the table and received from the One whom we both welcomed and condemned. And now this Maundy Thursday night, we encounter the events of Jesus’ last supper with his friends.
On this night we are not just invited but commanded (hence the Maundy in Maundy Thursday from the Latin word for command)…not just invited but commanded to do as Jesus did…not just to pretend or act out but to do as Jesus did. And what did he do? He modeled compassionate love that night (all of his life, really). Taking the role of a servant he washed the feet of his friends, even (and maybe especially) the feet of the one who was betraying him, Judas. Then, because he had let everyone at the table know that one of them would betray him that night, the disciple who was reclining right next to Jesus, was prompted to ask, “Lord, who is it?” and Jesus said, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.” And he gave it to Judas. It is as if Jesus were saying to all of us, “Did you see that? I love him, too. I forgive him already. I washed his feet. I fed him! I didn’t refuse to speak to him, or fight him. It is this kind of love that will transform the world…will bring heaven to earth. This is the kind of love I am talking about when I tell you to love as I have loved you. Wash one another’s feet. Take care of one another when I’m gone. Be swift to forgive. Be swift to love!”
Do as I have done, implores our Lord. And we will become by doing. One of the rules of Benedict reads, “We become hospitable not by analyzing hospitality, but by greeting guests, offering them the kiss of peace, washing their feet, serving them food, adoring Christ’s presence in them” (John Allyn Melloh, Passover and Easter; Origin and History to Modern Times, p. 230). In other words, we become friendly by being friendly, we become caring by showing that we care, we become Christian by being Christ like. We must do what we wish to become, what we wish to receive. It’s simple, really. And, though not easy, even the most hardened of us have our moments when the truth breaks through.
There’s a story of a dour theology professor. His intellect was intimidating, and many found him unapproachable. He placed great demands on students and graded them harshly if they did not rise to meet them. Students grumbled behind his back. One day he startled them in class as he spoke of God’s love for humankind. His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked as he told of God’s passion for the world. One student after another had to recalculate their perceptions of their teacher. Perhaps that day this gruff professor’s love for God and his students softened his heart, too.
On this Maundy Thursday night, we encounter another command by Jesus and one we hear decreed every time we come to Holy Communion. At table that last night Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” But Holy Communion is not just a memorial to the past. This night we are reminded that when we eat the bread and drink the wine at this table, we are to come together as One…to literally re-member. We come together as members of the One Body of Christ. We come together in the realization that we take the mystery of Christ into our very being.
We know the ending to this story and yet it’s best not to rush the resurrection just yet. Stay. You’re welcome just as you are. Hear the commandment Christ gives us once again: “Love one another as I have loved you.” For in doing as Jesus commands us to do, we help heal the wounds of our broken world and we are never the same again.
Now the time has come to do what Jesus did in the ancient ritual of footwashing. However you choose to enter in, the opportunity for transformation exists. You might choose to accept this invitation by physically coming forward and honor someone by washing their feet and then allow someone to wash yours. Or, you might choose to yield to God’s touch within yourself privately uniting with us in prayer. Or, perhaps, you’re not sure. Regardless, I invite you to consider and hopefully to embrace just how deeply you are loved by God. It’s simple, really.