When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.
What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story
The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?
With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.
Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.
As we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.
Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?
After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)
We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.
At the abbey where I live, I preach at the Maundy Thursday liturgy and the Easter Vigil. I do not preach on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the two liturgies where we chant the Passion. The Passion is long enough without added sermons and the Passion speaks for itself. That is, it speaks for itself as long as we don’t add things it does not say that undermine what the Passion does say.
To belabor what should be the obvious, the Passion Story tells us what human beings chose to do. Jesus chose to drive the money changers from the temple and teach the people there. The Jewish authorities chose to plot to have Jesus arrested and handed over to the Roman authorities. Judas chose to betray Jesus, thus facilitating the arrest and handing over. Pilate, to varying degrees in the four Gospels, vacillated but in the end chose to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. Meanwhile, the people who had cheered Jesus upon entering Jerusalem ended up crying for his crucifixion. The Roman centurions nailed Jesus to the cross where he died. The Passion narratives say nothing to suggest that anything that was done to Jesus, from the arrest to harassment and flogging to nailing him to the cross was in any way the will of God.
In all this, God does not do anything. Why do I bother to make a big point of this? The reason is that many Christians have suggested that God positively willed the sacrifice of Jesus for some cosmic purpose, usually because God was upset with wayward humans and was somehow incapable of forgiving humans unless somebody took the punishment for human sin. If Jesus, innocent of sin, should take the punishment, well and good. Well, not well and good. What kind of god demands punishment and doesn’t care who gets punished as long as somebody does? The Passion Story never says anything of the kind.
If God did not will Jesus’ violent death, what did God will? What was God’s plan? Jesus understood the heavenly Father’s plan to be that he Jesus knew that if he defeated Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate with force would only keep the world forever embroiled in retaliatory violence. The only way to avoid that was to gather people peacefully no matter the outcome, even if it meant death.
But Death, much as it was the plan of humans, was not God’s plan as a group of women found out early in the morning on the first day of the week.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of crowds strewing branches before him and proclaiming him the king. A few days later, the same crowd gathered before Pilate to cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion. What happened?
Before answering this question, it is helpful to recall another crowd that went out into the desert to see John the Baptist. “What did you come out to see?” John asked them. “A reed blowing in the wind?” John suspects that people have come out in droves because people were coming out in droves. That is, it was the “in” thing to do. Fast forward a few months and we have a crowd at Herod’s palace supporting Salome’s request for John’s head on a dish. What did they come to see?
The post Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology goes a long way in explaining this phenomenon. One can’t help but suspect that people are crying out because everybody else is crying out, no matter what the outcry is about. Advertising usually does not advertise the product but its alleged popularity. Political campaigns do the same thing. What would happen if people stopped to listen to what people were actually saying instead of crying out what they think everybody else is crying out?
It so happens that the Gospels do precisely this. The suggestion that the Gospels are Passion narratives with long introductions gives short shrift to what the Gospels are about. What these “long introductions” do is tell us at great length what Jesus actually said and what he taught. They also tell us what Jesus did before he was nailed to the cross, i.e. he healed people and cast out demons and he unilaterally forgave sins. These “long introductions” also tell us why the power brokers in Judea and Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead. By reading these “long introductions” to the Passion narrative, we are drawn away from crying out what everybody else is crying out and waving signs that only proclaim what the current fashion is believed to be. Instead, we are drawn into a very different social mimetic process, a process that builds up mutual respect between people, seeing people as they really are and as they really can become when they receive the unilateral forgiveness that Jesus gives them, a social process of not retaliating for wrongs done, a socially mimetic process of forgiving debts, of sharing what we can, of offering healing to others.
It is instructive that the Palm Sunday liturgy begins with everybody playing the part of the crowd welcoming Jesus with palms and then, a bit later, we hold these palms while acting the part of the crowd in crying out for Jesus’ death during the reading or chanting of the Passion. What we need to do afterward is return to the “long introductions” to see what the fuss was about and hopefully, hear the cock crow as did Peter.