St Bride's: Sermons

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday

As part of my devotional routine I make a point each week of spending time exploring the art inspired by the events reflected in the scriptural readings of the day.

As we enter the triduum, the three great days of the Christian year, there are so many events and so much artistic work that this practice is entirely overwhelmed.  The events of these days are so significant that we may spend the whole year, indeed our whole lives reflecting on them.  For example, at every Eucharist we recall that last meal in the upper room, the institution of the Lord's Supper.  

There is a particular image I'd like to reflect a little on this evening though.  It's a painting by Sieger Koder, a German Priest and artist who died last year.  It's called 'Jesus Washes Peter's feet'. 

In it bread and wine lay on a table in the top left hand corner.  In the foreground Jesus kneels.  Peter's feet are in a bowl of water, his pose make clear that he protests.  The scripture tells us - Peter saith "Thou shalt never wash my feet" but Jesus warns "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me". 

As we often see, Peter doesn't get it - "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head".  Jesus explains "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet".  We can be clear then that Jesus regards this as an important symbolic act.  

In his painting Sieger presents the foot washing alongside the elements of bread and wine.  Jesus' posture is significant; he stoops to save us.  That involves a cleansing.  If we are not to miss what is required of us we must recognise our need for cleansing.  Not as Peter understood it.  Rather our need here has been our focus during this Lenten season, our need is repentance for our sins and our betrayals.  Tonight in Judas' betrayal of the Lord we see our own betrayals.

In the prayer of humble access that Archbishop Cranmer wrote but drawing on much older sources we say before we receive communion:
"Grant ...that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood".

We must be willing to be cleansed.

As George Herbert wrote "Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back guilty of dust and sin"... "'And know you not', says Love, 'who bore the blame'?".  To be willing to be cleansed we must face our own guilt for Christ's sacrifice and accept Love's offering.  Peter struggled.  His expectation was of a saviour that would come in great power.  He was challenged then by Christ's vulnerability and his call to vulnerability. 

Here we get to what is perhaps the most striking aspect of Sieger's painting and his theological comment.  We see the back of Jesus and his head, bowed low, is hidden from us.  Yet in the dirty water below, the water used for washing feet, we see the reflection of his face.  Not only are we called to service but we can expect to encounter the Lord when we undertake tasks that make us feel vulnerable in the dark places of the world - at the hospital bedside, in a prison cell, on the streets, in a camp in Calais, or wherever that might be.

And of course feet have a symbolic meaning, of a readiness of action.  In Sieger's painting Christ's feet aren't in any way beatified, they are clearly the feet of a working man.  In this evenings Psalm and our Old Testament reading from Exodus there are reference to feet.  In Psalm 116 "thou has delivered my feet from falling.  I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living". And in Exodus after the instructions regarding the Passover meal the scripture says "and thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand".   Be ready with your staff in hand be ready to move, to serve the Lord - our calling again.  

Of course after the arrest we know that the disciples used their feet to flee.  With the stripping of the altar we remember how Christ's body was stripped and how he was left alone.  How will we use our feet? To follow Christ and to serve our neighbour, or to flee? We may struggle to be faithful to Christ but he remains faithful to us.

All glory be to him, now and to the ages of ages.


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