The Washing of the Feet

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The Washing of the Feet, by Ghislaine Howard (2004), Collection: Oxford Brookes University.

In a dramatic and moving moment as he celebrates the Passover meal with this disciples, Jesus strips down and washes the feet of his followers. (John 13:1-15)

Ghislaine Howard takes one moment in the familiar story. It’s the encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter -as so often seemed to be the case- gave voice to what the others were only thinking (aren’t you glad of people like that?). Here’s the moment:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ ‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’  Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.”

The painting emphasises the workmanlike crudity of the seated apostle. He looks every inch the tough no-nonsense fisherman, garbed in what seem to resemble prison clothes. His hand is stretched out in surprise, in a brusque shoo-ing moment. “You’re going to wash my feet? You? Seriously? No way.”

And Jesus is stooped in service, his semi-nakedness making him seem astonishingly vulnerable. His face is absorbed in the task, concentrating on it, and his hand cradles Peter’s foot.

And then you realise that these hands will soon be pierced, that this simple act of service and love is also a moment of the cross. That is to say, it prefigures Jesus’total giving of service and love right up to the point of death.

But Peter, being Peter, does not understand. And we (being we) don’t do much better! John the narrator explains this in his introduction: “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him….”

So does that mean that Jesus washed Judas’ feet?

Yes, of course. His love wasn’t dependent on our worthiness to receive it. The betrayal that was already in Judas’ heart didn’t stop Jesus loving Judas, anymore than the inability of Peter to understand didn’t exclude Peter!

Love is not thwarted by treachery… or by ignorance either.

Sometimes it is, for us. When we encounter someone being nasty, or gossiping about us, our natural tendency is to pull back from them. We say”I want nothing to do with that person.” We write people off. We drop them from our Christmas card lists. But this attitude is precisely what Jesus died to challenge. He makes it explicit in the passage:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

The “example” of doing what Jesus did is not fulfilled by the mere physical action of footwashing, of course, but by answering the question: ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’

Do you?

Do I fully engage with other humans, making myself vulnerable,  playing second fiddle, allowing them to look down on me?  Am I ready to serve other people even when they misunderstand what I’m doing or even when may use my vulnerability to do me wrong?

Jesus said, in this same chapter,

“A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  (John 13:34)

And this -this metaphor of washing feet – this is how you are to do it. You love one another “as I have loved you.

Broadly, the love of Christ was the spirit of giving all He had to give. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Christ’s love was not a feeling; it was a self-giving. Even his enemies agreed: “He saved others; himself He can not save.” Such a truth: the first clause contained the answer to the second – “Himself He cannot save!” How could He, having saved others?

How can any keep what he gives? How can any live for self, when He is living for others?

Unconsciously, those enemies were spelling out the heartbeastof Christianity that only by losing self you can save others; that only by giving life you can bless. Love always gives itself. The mother spends herself in giving life to her child; the soldier dies for his country;“He saved others; himself He can not save.” That was the love of Christ.

Jesus showed this in his  life as much as in his death. The painting reminds us of his consistent, understated kindness in a hundred tiny moments.  “I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat.” He noticed the details – the feet that needed washing – even with his eyes on the big picture of the cross.

Again, to the disciples: “Come aside into a desert place, and rest awhile.” He didn’t want them knackered. He even tenderly enforced some relaxation.

Think of his dying words: “Behold your mother! Woman, behold your son!” Short sentences. He was too exhausted to say more. But in that hour of death and torture, he could think of his mum, and with delicate, thoughtful attention provide for her well-being.

We live in a world besotted by a fake celebrity culture. We are driven by a need to be noticed.  There are people who want to great acts; but because they wait for great opportunities, life passes, and the acts of love are not done at all. But the kindness of Christ was shown in little things. And that’s mostly where our life is lived!

In little things.

Opportunities for doing the Big Stuff seldom occur. Life is made up of the tiny things. Think of what will happen to you today. A few tasks, job, people, family, a little probem that needs fixing… small attentions, kind looks.

That’s where we live, where feet need washing. And Jesus said: I’m doing this as an example for  you. “Love as I have loved.”

Is that too little? It’s loving as Jesus loved.  Plus it prepares you for more. Jesus will not give you a Ferrari until you can handle a bike.  The one who will be found in trial capable of great acts of love, is ever the one who is always doing considerate small ones. The one who poured himself out to death upon the cross for the human race, was the Spirit of Him who thought of the wants of the people, contrived for the rest of the disciples, and was thoughtful for his mum.

And it was a love never foiled by the unworthiness of those on whom it had been once bestowed. It was a love which faults, desertion, denial, unfaithfulness could not chill.

And yet there was every thing to shake that trust in humanity. The Pharisees called him Good Master, and were scheming all the while. The people shouted Hosanna, and a few days later were shrieking for His blood. One disciple who had shared the same meal, and been trusted with His intimate conversation, deceived and betrayed Him; another was ashamed of Him; three fell asleep while He was preparing for death; all forsook Him and fled. Yet nothing is more surprising than that unshaken, obstinate, trust with which He clung to His hopes of our nature, and believed in the face of demonstration. You believe in Christ? Great. But the wonder is that he believes in you.

What are we like, by comparison? We learn to distrust. We get cynical. And the only preservation from this withering of the heart is love. Love is its own fountain of refreshment. The strength of affection is a proof not of the worthiness of the object, but of the largeness of the soul which loves.

Here’s a prayer by F.W.Robertson, the celebrated English preacher (1816-1853) based on “Love as I have loved you.” May it gird us for the day:

“Therefore come what may, hold fast to love. Though men should rend your heart, let them not embitter or harden it. We win by tenderness, we conquer by forgiveness. Oh, strive to enter into something of that large celestial charity which is meek, enduring, unretaliating, and which even the overbearing world can not withstand forever. Learn the new commandment of the Son of God. Not to love merely, but to love as He loved. Go forth in this spirit to your life-duties: go forth, children of the Cross, to carry every thing before you, and win victories for God by the conquering power of a love like His.”

It’s time to take up the towel and bucket.



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