(The sixth of seven weekly Lenten reflections.) In meditating on the events of Holy Week, I realize that I have never taken part in a foot washing service. I have never belonged to a tradition that considered foot washing as an ordinance of the church. But something of the meaning of that signal event in Christ’s interactions with his disciples has come home to me this year.
Here’s part of John’s account, unique to his gospel:
Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. (John 13:3-5, CEB)
Time is short. John tells us that Jesus knows that his hour has come (13:1); it’s time to finish the job and go home. Judas is already full of the devil, ready to sell his master out (13:2). Jesus still has much to say to the Twelve before leaving that room to face his final trial. But first, he wants to give them a visual lesson they’ll never forget. John doesn’t record any conversation at this point; I imagine the disciples watching in wordless embarrassment as Jesus rises from his place at the dinner table, doffs his outer garment, and proceeds to wash their dirty feet, as if he were the very lowliest of slaves.
The room remains quiet, except for the gentle lapping sound of water laving away the dust. Not surprisingly, it is Peter who breaks the awkward silence. The King James Version sounds regally polite: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” The likely reality is that Peter is pulling his feet back in horror, sputtering, “Lord? You??? Wash my feet?” Even when Jesus persists, Peter still refuses: “Never!” (John 13:6-8).
The objection is reminiscent of an earlier one, when Jesus tries to tell the Twelve what awaits him in Jerusalem. Peter, to his credit, knows that Jesus is the Messiah. But he cannot imagine that this means suffering and death. He pulls Jesus aside and scolds him for making such un-Messiah-like predictions: “Never! Not you!” (Matt 16:16-22). He is sternly rebuked in return.
By the time we reach their final moments together in the upper room, the lesson still hasn’t been learned. Thus the show-and-tell, complete with homework: “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do” (John 13:14-15, CEB).
It reminds me of a passage from Paul, in which he encourages his beloved brothers and sisters in Philippi to set their moral compass by the humility of Jesus:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8, CEB)
Jesus “emptied” himself: that’s a literal translation of the word Paul uses. Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of this: did Jesus stop being God? In a word, no. But the problem is that it’s hard for us to imagine humility as somehow demonstrating who God really is. God, emptying himself? God, a slave? God, dying on a cross? Never!
When I read these words of Paul, my mind tends to go straight to the climax: Jesus’ self-emptying means his willingness to submit to the Father’s will and be crucified for the sake of the human creatures in whose form he has come. But “slave” is not just a colorful metaphor. As the eternal Jesus emptied himself, so did the incarnate Jesus actually strip himself of his robe and his dignity, to do the kind of menial work that the disciples themselves would have abhorred.
“Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” And in so doing, enter the paradox of divine humility, the fullness of emptiness.