“As I have done”

A Maundy Thursday Reflection by Rev. Marie Loewen

For over twenty years now, on this night, I have stood at the front of a church, and quietly stripped off the vestments that mark me a servant of the table belonging to Jesus. 

Each year, as I will do tonight, I remove the stole that is a symbol of that servanthood, kiss it tenderly in gratitude, fold it carefully. I lay it across the altar where my brothers and sisters in faith kneel or stand week after week to receive the bread and wine. As we share this, we are nourished for our journey. Often, I find myself deeply moved as I remove the white alb. It symbolizes my own baptism. For an instant I am eight years old again and my mothers-in-faith dress me in a white robe. The pastor who has nurtured my spirit so gently asks me to declare my faith before family and friends and then immerses me in the waters. The memory lingers but a few seconds, but it is sweet. Dressed only in my street clothes there will be nothing to visually signal the office I hold – and this is how it should be.

Jesus removed all signs of his power, w   rapped a towel around his waist and knelt before those  he loved to the end. I will invite you, my companions walking in the way of Christ, to come forward, that “I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master”.  I will kneel, take the scrubbed feet of Jesus’ followers in my hands, pour the warm water and wipe them dry with white towel. The spotless feet, sometimes even  pedicured for the occasion, are very different from the soiled feet of those original disciples, but the love of Jesus for us, his precious disciples, is just as limitless.  

Our hearts flood with a profound sense of grace that we are in this holy place.  In the humble act of kneeling before one another, we signify the presence of Jesus. His hands are on the hands that cleanse the feet of those for whom he died. In the touch, we are meant to make tangible his throbbing love, His longing tenderness and His broken heart.

Then I, too, sit and allow my feet to be washed.  This is hard.  My feet are calloused and ugly and revealing them makes me uncomfortable, vulnerable. I am Peter, wanting to hide that of which I am ashamed. Still, Jesus kneels before the Peters among us, urging us to submit to this act of love.

When we are done, I will rinse and cleanse my hands and don the robe and stole again. I will have shared the word with you in the gospel and these reflections, and then we will share the Word in bread and wine.  Always, on this night, I am deeply quiet in my spirit and the presence of Jesus is palpable for me in each syllable and movement.  

The desolation of the night we are remembering is as deep as the darkness that will fall on our sanctuary as the candles are extinguished.  The beautiful trappings of our worship will be hidden away, and altar will lie as bare as the body of our Lord when he is stripped of his clothing.  The stark space that remains will feel cold and bleak.  Slowly, silently, people rise and leave until I am alone in the dark. Often, in those moments, the isolation of Gethsemane is a deep fog that presses in. Eventually I wander to the haven of my home, poignantly aware that for Jesus, there was no shelter from the hate and pain and horror of that night and I shiver with the thought.

 How shall we, this night, obey Jesus plea that we “should do as I have done for you”?

Our circumstances are so very changed from that night long ago, but the heart of Jesus is not.  He still comes to the Peter in us, offering to cleanse us, to touch us with tender, healing hands.  He does not recoil from the filth of our journeys, or the calluses or the scars. So often, like Peter, we shrink from the cleansing.  We know it is more than we deserve. Our own weakness leads us to despair. The callouses of pride cover our fearful vulnerability, and the broken shoe-leather of our self-sufficiency looks tawdry in the light such holiness and love. Then we hear the words – “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Oh, that thought is too awful. It is  unbearable.  If we – if I- insist on clinging to my sin, to my anger against another, my hardness of heart, my coldness, on cutting another off, I will be wounding anew the Body of Christ, impairing my own relationship with my Lord – by my own stubbornness. So we plead, “Wash me, Lord.  Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”.  His tender hands receive our ugliness in love, wash the soiled feet and bring healing to the scars. The weakness becomes a strength.

Then comes the challenge – “Do as I have done for you”. Perhaps we could wash the feet of John, Lord.  They aren’t so very calloused.  He is younger after all. Perhaps the feet of Matthew, an interesting fellow and devout.  But you ask us to wash the feet of Judas’?  Really?  How can we?  There has been no repentance.  We know there will be betrayal again. We know it!  But the voice of love is persistent “Do …”.  See the face of Jesus looking into the face of his betrayer, holding those feet in his hands, touching them with infinite tenderness. Jesus, kneeling in a love that will be tossed away for thirty pieces of silver.

So it begins, as it needs to begin again, on this Maundy Thursday.  We let our feet be cleansed.  We may bare our feet at the  bowl, or we find ourselves too shy to do so, but we can all expose our hearts to the tender, scarred hands of Jesus for healing.  And having received that gift of grace, of love, we can choose to kneel before those we would want to avoid, and from our hearts, seek a way to wash their feet, to minister to the brokenness that underlies the hurtful actions.  Guided by the Spirit that knows the heart of another and whispers into ours, we wash the soil of anger, of brokenness, of wrongs, with words of forgiveness and grace.  We pour the warm water of compassion over the scars of a past in which we may have had no part and about which there is much we do not know. We do not need to know the details.  The Spirit, who prays through us when we don’t know how to pray, that Spirit knows. It is enough.

It may be that the feet we wash will be the feet of a Peter, who responds with a cry of thankfulness that there is a way to reconciliation.  Yet, it may well be that we will also wash the feet of a Judas who refuses the grace Jesus offers through our human hands and words.  In the end, does it matter? Jesus has called us to wash the feet, not to change the heart.  That is his work.  What we do find, is that as we receive the feet of our companion, we look up – and the face we see is the face of Jesus, smiling gently as he receives our gift of love.  We look down at the feet in our hands and see the scars of the nails.  It is enough.