In the dining room of the house in which I grew up was a large framed picture of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Perhaps you had one in your home as well or are familiar with this picture. I remember that picture well. It’s where the Palms were placed after we got home from church on Palm Sunday. It overlooked the dining room table where we would eat our Sunday dinner. In this picture, everyone is seated at the table, which is strange because, in the time of Jesus, they actually reclined. This meant that your feet would be at face level to whomever was sitting next to you—a problem because the roads were full of dust and grime and they wore sandals. To address this, the host would have a servant available to wash the feet of all guests as they arrived for dinner and this job was given to the very lowest hired hand on the totem pole.
But this night was different. When the disciples began to arrive in the upper room that had been selected for this Seder meal, they saw the bowl and the basin and the towel—but there was no foot-washer. It is interesting that none of them stepped up to this task, probably either because of a false sense of pride or their hurry to claim a place nearest Jesus.
If you are at all familiar with the wonderful ritual of the Seder, you know that it tells the story and is the memorial of the deliverance of the ancestors of our Jewish sisters and brothers from bondage in Egypt. It is a great festival of proud thanksgiving. The youngest member in the family is charged with the asking of questions. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" asks the child.
Can you imagine the impact that question had on the disciples at that Passover Meal, the Last Supper they would eat with Jesus before his death? They had seen Jesus remove his robe, tie a towel around his waist, take up the basin and pitcher and begin to wash their feet. We only know Peter’s reaction to this but don’t you wonder how the rest of them reacted? And what about Judas? When Jesus washed his feet did their eyes meet? Yes, that night was certainly different from all other nights.
When the washing is complete, Jesus returns to the table and explains what he has just done, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” He has tuned the expected hierarchical stuctures upside down. To follow the example Jesus gave us means to create a community of equals in which all are served—the faithful as well as the unfaithful. Oh, that night was different from all other nights.
In the middle of their meal, Jesus takes bread and wine, and identifies himself with this food and drink as his very body and blood and he gives this new sacramental, this outward sign of inward grace to his uncomprehending friends. And, again, he gives them an instruction just as he did after washing their dirty feet: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Clearly, this night was different from all other nights.
A lot will happen after this meal: a walk to a garden, a betrayal, an arrest, a triple denial by one of his disciples, a trial, a beating, a strenuous walk to a hill, a crucifixion and death, a burial. But, when all of this is history and they have grasped the reality of his resurrection, they would remember that night—over and over. They will recall his tenderness, his humility in the washing of their feet, his manadatum, the new commandment to love one another. They will remember how this night was so very different from all other nights, from all the other Seders of their lives. Every time they enter a home and have their feet washed they will remember this night and how Jesus knelt in front of them. And they will remember how much he loved them and that he gave his life for them.
Tonight, we remember and by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter that night so long ago as a living reality that Jesus is with us here in the present. We remember how he tied a towel around his waist, took up the basin and washed twenty-four dirty, callused, smelly, feet; by that action modeling for them and for us the way to live in self-giving and servanthood.
In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher shares her experience of one Maundy Thursday. “The room is still, the air is gentle. Sometimes people embrace after they have washed each other’s feet. Katrina is standing at the end of the room, barefoot. Richard Bass, a towel draped over his arm like as waiter, is helping Esther Schultz to her seat. I kneel down before a thin woman I’ve seen a few times at church. Her foot is nothing but stretched skin over bone. As I hold it, I realize that Jesus knew a secret: to wash someone’s foot, if it is a voluntary act, engenders compassion. The lowly, unprotected foot, not the wise hands or head, is vulnerable, unmasked. I think, There is a reason for all of this.”
There is a reason for all of this: to create a community of equals in which all are served—the faithful as well as the unfaithful and to be saturated by God’s radical love. May we, like the disciples who gathered so long ago in an upper room. leave this evening with the memory of years past when we washed the feet of others or watched this ancient ritual—one in which we cannot participate tonight—when we took the Bread and drank from the cup and watched as the Altar was stripped just as Jesus was before his crucifixion knowing deep in our hearts that living in the midst of this disturbing health crisis, this night is different from all other nights.
At the conclusion of the Seder meal which will take place in so many homes around the world this week, some via Zoom and Skype, the family proclaims, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Never did it have more meaning for me than this year, this night as we pray, “Next year in our beloved church of St. Andrew’s – all gathered together.”