Back in the 1990s, I had a job lecturing at a theological college, which trained candidates for the ordained ministry from the Anglican, Methodist, and United Reformed Churches. And with such a wide range of church traditions represented, getting a form of worship together that worked for the whole community was always a challenge – especially when it came to Holy Week.
And I can remember one Maundy Thursday that was particularly contentious – because some students were very keen for the service to incorporate a symbolic foot washing, where, following the example of Jesus at the Last Supper, the priest washes the feet of selected members of the congregation. But others didn’t approve of that at all. So we ended up having to be both imaginative and sensitive in how we approached this.
So during our service on Maundy Thursday, two chairs were placed before the altar rail, one either side, in front of the congregation, each with its own jug and bowl and towel. And the whole thing was left completely open and voluntary: anyone who felt moved to take part, was invited to go forward when one of those seats became vacant, to sit down, and to have their feet washed. But then, they in turn would kneel down to wash the feet of the next person to sit down. And so it went on. This meant that no one individual was acting out the role of Jesus – rather, we really were ministering to one another.
We had no idea whether it would work – so what happened took us all completely by surprise. Because as that ceremony progressed, the power of that simple ritual started to affect all of us – we all got caught up in it – so much so that I think I am right in saying that pretty well every single member of our congregation, even those who had expressed the greatest reservations about the symbolic foot-washing, ended up taking part.
Now, at the time we had about fifty-five students in training, and I prided myself on enjoying a very good relationship with virtually all of them. There were really only two individuals out of the entire student body, to whom I found it really very difficult to relate.
And as I watched people leaving their places in the congregation and going up in turn to have their feet washed, a rather uncomfortable realisation began to dawn. Because I could see that if the sequence of people who were going forward continued to follow the pattern that was naturally emerging, I was going to end up having my feet washed by one of my two least favourite individuals – a woman whom I always found difficult and un-co-operative, and who always made it clear that she had very little liking or respect for me either.
And so, it was with a sinking heart that, when my turn came, I went forward and took my seat on one of the chairs at the front, as she knelt at my feet. And I have to say that I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Because she washed my feet beautifully; with extraordinary care, and attentiveness, and delicacy. It was as if, in that momentary encounter, I was able to glimpse another side of her; indeed, I have to say that, looking back now, that small incident did make an actual difference to the way in which I subsequently thought about her, and related to her. Indeed, I began to realise that I was discovering the true power of such symbolic actions almost for the first time: actions that do not merely re-enact something from the past, but actually bring into being in the present something very real and very new. In that moment, without being able to put it into words, I felt that I was getting much closer to the true meaning of Maundy Thursday.
Finding myself feeling very moved, and rather taken aback, by this unexpected moment of revelation and grace, I myself, in turn, knelt down ready to wash the feet of the next person to take the seat. And when I looked up to see whose feet I would be washing, I simply could not believe it! I mentioned a moment ago that there were two students in the college whom I found it enormously difficult to work with. Having had my feet washed by one of them, I now found myself facing the challenging prospect of having to wash the feet of the other one – a man who irritated me beyond belief. So much so that I must confess that I even found his presence in the room annoying.
But, kneeling down on that Maundy Thursday evening, I felt duty bound to wash his feet with all the care and attentiveness that the previous woman had shown to me. And in so doing, I found myself actually having to acknowledge and to face all the negative feelings that I had felt towards him; and the very ungracious way in which I often treated him and spoke about him; and, I blush to admit, the contempt that I felt for him. And I have to say that, suddenly, I felt very, very ashamed.
The Last Supper, like so many of the events of Holy Week, is a strangely complex occasion. At one level it was an event of unprecedented intimacy, as Jesus and his disciples sat together, sharing a simple meal to mark a religious festival. Something bound them together that night as never before – but it remained unspoken. There was a closeness; a sense of companionship; a sense of all that they had shared together. And that intimacy found a powerful and memorable expression that night, not through words, but through the actions of Jesus.
For, as we heard in our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus took off his robe, put a towel around him, and washed his disciples’ feet. Foot washing was the task of the most menial of domestic slaves – and, yet, here was their Lord, God’s chosen one, the Messiah, doing it to them. Little wonder that Peter is both embarrassed and outraged – everything in his world is suddenly, and perplexingly, being turned upside-down: ‘I will never let you wash my feet!’, he cries. ‘But Peter, you do not yet understand’, says Jesus, gently. ‘This is how it has to be. You must let me wash your feet – and you in turn must wash one another’s feet.’
And for those of us living through the present pandemic, it has never been more important for us to be able to minister to one another, and to respect one another; especially those whom we find it most difficult to love.
It was there at the Last Supper, at the very heart of that moment of wonder and intimacy, that the shadow of the cross began to fall; and, as this service progresses, so that shadow will increase, until, like the disciples, we are left in silence and deepening darkness, to watch and to wait, until the terrible descent into the chaos and desolation of Good Friday finally begins.
Because there, at the Last Supper, sharing in that closeness and companionship with Jesus, is Judas. Jesus has just knelt before him and washed his feet, too; Jesus has washed the feet of his betrayer. In so doing, he surrenders himself to the destiny that awaits him, not with anger, or with fear, or with resistance, but with love, and with gentleness, and with compassion. And in the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, he gives us our first glimpse of the horror that lies ahead for him: the shattered body; the shed blood.
And for Jesus himself, the long, lonely journey towards pain, and humiliation and death begins here. A journey of increasing isolation. Awaiting his arrest in the garden, Jesus embraces his destiny by an act of sheer strength of will: ‘Father, let this cup pass by me; but not as I will, but as Thou wilt.’
And yet, when, on this Maundy Thursday evening, we too commemorate the Lord’s Supper, as the first disciples did two thousand years ago, our attention is directed not only to the horror of Good Friday, but also beyond it. For, in the bread and the wine that Christ offered to us, and for us at the Last Supper, we are also granted a glimpse of something more: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet; a promise that something unimaginably wonderful awaits us at the end of our journey.
But, like the disciples, a hard road lies ahead of us before we reach that place. Like them, we too must pass through the desolation and despair and hopelessness of Calvary, before we can discover the true wonder of what lies beyond it. So, have courage; and take heart, as we too prepare to walk the way of the Cross. Amen.