“Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles” (16th century, Pskov School of Iconography).
John 13:1-17; 31b-35
I wonder if you have ever had that experience where someone you loved did something very kind—something very generous–for you and rather than accepting this kindness, you recoiled. Without thinking about it too carefully, rather than accepting the gift, you balked, you hesitated, and in that hesitation, you actually rejected the offer. Gifts are delicate things, and it is often far more difficult to receive than to give them.
Jesus is offering a gift to his disciples as he proceeds to wash their feet, and once again, it is through Peter—that most human of disciples—that we see all the ambiguity of being human, all the hope and all the despair. All the love, and all the inability to love; the bold faith and the woeful lack thereof are encapsulated in this disciple. But Peter does not want Jesus to wash his feet; indeed, he exclaims, “You will never wash my feet.”
The washing of the feet is, of course, a sign of great humility. It was the practice of servants to wash what was considered, lowly, base, unclean. Jesus, after all, was not Peter’s servant but his hero. It would have been undignified for Jesus to wash so lowly and so base a part of him. And yet, this is precisely what Christ is pleased to do for Peter and for us. And in doing so, he shows Peter, as he shows us, that there is no place so shameful, so base, that he is not willing and able to touch.
Jesus touches those places of shame, that place within Peter that denies Jesus—that longs for him to be other. That place in Peter that wants to be the greatest, not the least—that place in Peter that wills his own security over that of his beloved rabbi. And so he touches those places within us too. He sees us in our lack of faith, our lack of courage, our hardness of heart. He sees the various ways in which we betray or misunderstand those whom we love. And yet he touches us; he washes us; he revives us, even in those places we would rather hide.
Feet are not just lowly; they are also vulnerable. They are the very place that the serpent threatens to strike; they are weak to dashing against stones; they are the places where Christ will be pierced. It is also for this reason that Peter does not wish to have his master wash his feet. Peter cannot abide the vulnerability of having his beloved friend at his feet, washing them. He would far prefer that Jesus’ attention be diffused to the Body’s other, stronger, members (not just my feet but my hands and my head as well (John 13:9). Yet Jesus insists upon offering his singular attention to Peter and to Peter’s feet. What weakness will he find there? Peter asks, as do we. What hidden fears and secret defences do we hide from others, from God, and even from ourselves?
And yet Christ descends even to our terrifying vulnerabilities. Our fear of death, of sickness, and of loneliness. Our secret fear that we are, in the end, unlovable. And he touches them, he heals them; he pours out his redeeming grace upon these, too.
While feet are signs of humility and vulnerability, they also travel; they are our chariots to the world beyond our immediate gaze. Peter could at that moment not have known that the feet that Jesus washes that night are the very feet that will stand in the square in Jerusalem proclaiming Christ’s salvation to all flesh; nor could he have known that his very feet would be led to places he did not want to go—the way of suffering and death. Just as Jesus’ feet were led to death, so too will Peter’s. Just as Jesus was anointed for burial, so too will Peter. To allow Jesus to wash his feet was to be anointed for a life lived under the shadow of the cross, a life of sacrifice, a life of suffering. Or, as Jesus puts it: “As I have loved you, you must love one another” (John 13:34).
It is finally for this reason that Peter really does not want to have Jesus wash his feet.
Jesus says to Peter: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7). We cannot know tonight the implications of this radical practice of foot-washing together, not immediately anyway. We understand at some level that we must serve others’ needs, even though we live in a world where we believe ourselves to be anything but servants. We sense something of the mystery of the church being caught up in our vulnerability together—of being the one place in our society where bigger, richer, younger and more powerful are not what is to be valued. And, finally, we sense somehow that our feet that we wash tonight will travel from this night to places of great sorrow and great joy and that our very own feet may find themselves in both spheres at once. And so, may we, like Peter, allow this anointing to shape us, as we come to realize that the humility, vulnerability and death that we will all share is precisely that which Christ takes up and redeems. And may we come to awaken ever more to this knowledge and this hope, even and especially as we make our own ways–and our way together–to the foot of the cross.