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It was dawn on a beautiful June morning in 1991, and I was in the delivery suite of what was then called Birmingham Maternity Hospital, having just given birth for the first time. I had had the obligatory tea and toast, and was feeling a very curious combination of emotions: overwhelmingly relieved and exhilarated, but also very fragile and exhausted and weak. And a nursing auxiliary came to my bedside and she washed me.
And she did it beautifully, and respectfully, and with great care. And as she did so, it felt as if she was washing away all the trauma and the pain of the previous hours, and restoring me to normal life again. It was a curiously intimate thing, despite the fact that the woman was a complete stranger - I didn't even know her name. But it was one of those strange but powerful moments when one felt gloriously resigned to being on the receiving end of someone else's ministry.
Another story: my mother was in a fairly advanced stage of Alzheimer's, and I had gone down to look after her for a couple of days, because my father had to go away. And one of the things that I did for her while I was there, for the first time in my entire life, was to wash her hair. At the time it seemed such a strange reversal of roles: someone upon whom I had been completely dependent for a significant part of my early life, was suddenly, and very touchingly, wholly dependent upon me. It is strange how an action as simple and fundamentally human as washing, or being washed, can evoke such deep emotions.
There are two very powerful symbolic actions by Jesus that we associate with Maundy Thursday: one of them was described in our first reading this evening from 1 Corinthians; the other we heard in our gospel reading a moment ago. The first is the institution of the Lord's Supper: that strange, strange sequence of actions when Jesus took bread, and broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me'; and similarly, with the cup of wine: 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'
Here we are taken, symbolically, to the very heart of what is yet to come on Good Friday: to Christ's broken body and shed blood; in addition, we are given a glimpse of the coming of God's kingdom; and in the present, Christ offers himself to us saying, in effect: 'receive me; share in this; this is my gift to you now.
And alongside that, in our gospel reading, we are given another rather different symbolic image; a different kind of gift, when Jesus washes his disciples' feet. And, yet, with it goes a similarly unambiguous instruction when Jesus says to them, 'Do you understand what I have done for you? If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. I have set you an example; that you also should do as I have done to you.'
It has always seemed to me rather curious that the mainstream churches have embraced the celebration of the Lord's Supper so readily as part of their regular worship (which, if anything, is the more bizarre of the two symbolic acts) - and yet, where is footwashing in our liturgical life? For the most part, even for those churches that do observe it, it is reserved for this one service of the year on Maundy Thursday, and even then it can occasionally prove to be an uncomfortable and awkward affair, where a handful of reluctant volunteers are pressganged into take part, while the rest of the congregation keep their socks resolutely on their feet. So why is it that we feel so uncomfortable about it, given that Jesus' charge to us is so clear and unambiguous?
Foot-washing, as enacted by Jesus, was a highly subversive act, particularly within the context of his own day, when it was the work of a household slave - the lowest of the low. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he not only invests the most lowly of household chores with a profound grace and significance, but at the same time he inverts all of the world's assumptions about whose job it is to do the serving, and who deserves to be served. His act of foot-washing is an action that subverts hierarchy - which can be a deeply challenging and very uncomfortable reality, particularly (one is tempted to say) within an institution as respectable and hierarchical as the Church.
But beyond that, the command to wash one another's feet requires us - requires us - to respond to one another in love and gentleness and service; with an intimacy and a care, and a willingness to receive as well as to give, that is simply not required of us in our normal relationships with one another - but which can perhaps be glimpsed in the two incidents from my own life that I began by describing - when I found myself being washed by a complete stranger, and then, in turn, fulfilling that task for someone else - on that occasion, my mother. It is the intimacy; the quality of the individual encounter in such instances, that is so precious. And yet, that can sometimes be an awkward gift for us to allow ourselves to receive.
But that feeling of awkwardness - an awkwardness shared by the disciple Peter - is surely significant - because we are not always very good at being gentle and close to one another. Such a symbolic action requires us to look squarely at the quality of our relationships with one another, and the truth about them. And I suspect that there are times for all of us when it feels considerably easier to focus on getting our relationship with God right, than to look honestly at the relationships that we have with some of those who are closest to us. (Though, of course, ultimately, the two are profoundly connected).
And lastly, I am always very struck by the fact that the act of foot-washing was for Jesus, in effect the final active deed of his earthly ministry. His last act is one of giving, rather than receiving: a gift offered in the shadow of his death. And one can perhaps only begin to grasp the full significance of this when one notes the single most startling but curiously hidden feature of this story, which is this: that when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he includes all of them - in the full knowledge of the fact that one of those whose feet he is washing is the man who is about to betray him and bring about his death. And yet, by washing the feet of Judas he is simply embodying one of the most significant and profound commandments in the whole of the gospel, perhaps most memorably expressed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus says:
Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father ...If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Even the tax-collectors do as much ... There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds.
The idea of being commanded to love - particularly to love one's enemies - can seem bizarre and nonsensical for a culture such as ours, which is accustomed to thinking of love as a feeling that happens to us, over which we have little control. But of course when Jesus commands us to love, he is not talking about love as a feeling, or an emotion, but rather as a state - as a way of being. He is challenging us to behave lovingly to one another: not merely to those to whom we happen to feel close (because all human beings do that) but rather, to behave lovingly towards everyone - particularly those whom we find it hardest to love; those who hate or despise us, or who would wish us harm; those by whom we feel betrayed; the Judases in our own lives.
Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
And as his journey leads him inexorably to the events of Good Friday and his passion and death, we see Christ living out this commandment in the most extreme, and costly, and devastating way possible.
Which is why, when we leave this service tonight, it is appropriate that we do so in silence.