Last Sunday, Youth Zone held a short spiritual “retreat” for the youths as a way of preparing them for the upcoming Holy Week. The theme of the event was silence, and it revolved around the instruction of our Lord Jesus in Gethsemane to “watch and pray.” The youths got to experience some of the spiritual practices of the church catholic through six different stations. Among the stations was one on feet washing—something straight out of the thirteenth chapter of St John’s Gospel. There, he gave the account of our Lord washing the feet of his disciples on the night of his betrayal. This dominical rite of feet washing is still carried out by many churches in their Maundy Thursday liturgies during Holy Week. Since it’s not in the custom of our church to have this practice, we thought it would be meaningful to have the youths participate in this ancient symbolic rite of the church.
It’s interesting that some of the youths felt embarrassed at having a friend wash their feet. This was similar to what my wife recounted to me. Many years ago, she had also participated in a feet washing activity at her church’s youth camp. She remembered a friend being very reluctant to allow someone else handle her feet because she thought they were unpleasant to smell and touch. She couldn’t bear to have anyone come in contact with her “smelly and sweaty” feet! I could understand this as I have dry skin on my feet and get self-conscious about it when they’re exposed before others.
Such responses to the rite of feet washing give us some insight into the strong reaction of Peter when our Lord approached to wash his feet: “Lord, do you wash my feet? … You shall never wash my feet.” At that time, the Jews regarded foot washing to be a menial and servile task which they would not expect Jewish slaves to do (although wives and children were permitted to do it as a form of devotion). That was because feet were always in sandals and in close proximity to the dirt, mud, and filth of the ground.
Today, we still think of the feet as the more repulsive parts of our body. That’s because they tend to acquire an unpleasant odour in our footwear due to the combination of perspiration and bacteria. Hence, it’s natural not to want a friend to handle them! If that’s the case, what more Peter who regarded Jesus Christ as his “Teacher and Lord” (13.13)? His outburst should be understandable—how could he suffer his Rabbi and Master to do something he would not even instruct a slave to do? However, Jesus Christ replied him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” (13.8). What did he mean by that?
In the other Gospel accounts (the synoptics—Mark, Matthew, and Luke), our Lord gave meaning to his subsequent death through his words and actions in the Passover meal with his disciples (Mt. 26.26-29). They provide us a lens to perceive and understand his death: it’s a sacrifice for the establishment of a new covenant (cf. Ex. 24.1-8), the remission of sins (cf. Lv. 17.11), and the liberation from the enslavement to sin (cf. Ex. 12.12). In St John’s Gospel, the feet washing account has taken the place of the Passover meal account. Therefore, it provides us with another lens to understand Jesus Christ’s death.
For St John, just as our Lord broke social boundaries and stooped to wash his disciples feet, the Son of God also broke cosmic boundaries when he gave himself over to death for the life of the world. Through his act of feet washing, we see in his death the manifestation of God’s self-giving love for the world, so that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3.16). Perhaps we may be embarrassed at our friends having to wash our unpleasant smelling feet, yet we should be more horrified at the Son of God having to take away our sin by dying for us. Our souls are as filthy as our feet.
For us to have a “part” in him—to be his disciples, to be Christian—is to allow him to “wash” us—to accept his love in his sacrificial dying for us. To live, we must accept both the fact that we are filthily sinful, and need our Lord to wash us with his blood or else we would die in sin. Yet, this acceptance consists not merely of abstract belief but must manifest in concrete acts “to wash one another’s feet” (13.14) —loving one another in self-giving ways just as our Lord gave of himself. The acceptance of our Lord’s sacrifice cannot but manifest in “love for one another” (13.34-35) because anyone who believes in Jesus Christ must also do the works that he does (14.12). Otherwise, it’s not possible to be one with him. To be one in union with him (and with the Father) comes by participating in his works, to do what he does and act in the way he acts by the power of his Spirit (14.18-21). That is, to love others as he has loved us.
Hence our Lord’s final command to his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (13.34). Just as he had washed their feet, they’re also to wash one another’s feet (13.14). He later told them, “You are my friends if I do what I command you” (15.14), with the implication that those who do not love fellow disciples are not his friends. Since, “a servant is not greater than his master,” then a disciple who will not love like our Lord sets himself above our Lord. He is neither his disciple nor a friend, and is without his Spirit.
On this Maundy Thursday, let us be reminded of our Lord’s commandment. After all, it’s from this that Maundy Thursday gets its name—Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command, and harks to the Latin translation of 13.34: “Mandatum novum do vobis…” Feet washing rites remain part of Maundy Thursday services because they serve as symbolic reminders of our Lord’s loving sacrifice and his instruction for us to love our fellow brothers and sisters in the same manner. I pray that all of us, especially the youths who experienced the rite, may always remember our Lord’s love, and strive to love as he loved us, so that all may know he truly is our Teacher and Lord. Amen.
Pr Png Eng Keat
April 17, 2022