There is a certain symmetry, don’t you think, between the Passover narrative and the Maundy Thursday Gospel?
People don’t do the Maundy Thursday thing as much anymore, I have a colleague whose congregation substitutes hand washing for foot washing, and many dispense with it entirely. It is an old-fashioned thing, so much so that in To Kill a Mockingbird Miss Maude takes the time to tell Scout that Boo Radley is a Baptist of the “foot-washing” variety, and that book was written before 1960.
It doesn’t fit. It is at odds with the way we organize our lives, it is weird and some people won’t do it, no matter what, they just won’t.
We are not a people who are given to kneeling anymore. Some denominations got rid of it centuries ago but even among Lutherans, who like their theology time-tested, there was a move for many decades to let go of the rituals, to let slip the traditions, not out of evil intent, but simply because they don’t fit in the world we live in now. They mark us as weird.
But what, I ask you, is the virtue of fitting in all that well with the world we live in? Is there a dearth of things that fit in well with the world all around us? Is there any other spot on earth where standing against the tide of self-interest, self-centeredness, self-involvement and just plain selfishness is more important than this place? Aren’t we called to transform the world, not fit into it?
So we kneel. Not at Jesus feet, that’s just the basic steps of this dance.
We kneel at the feet of each other. Equals in most respects, certainly equally lost in the eyes of the Lord, equally beloved as well; but as equals we set aside, even for the briefest moment, our power and prestige and serve.
It is a powerful thing. You cannot wash someone’s feet and not feel the presence of Christ in your hands, intimate with the incarnate one as He knelt to serve those who walked beside Him those many miles, washing the feet of those who walk with you this journey of faith.
The Israelites were called to be ready, eat the meal standing, eat hurriedly, staff in hand. The very presence of God was to be coming, the moment of deliverance was at hand, it was time to show forth how much that meant, a time to be ready, to be anxious, to be waiting.
What I like about it is that they reenact the whole narrative every year, the questions, the seder meal with its symbolic dishes and its rich meaning. They reenact the salvation from bondage in Egypt and the children know the stories and even if they no longer practice their faith, they know the story, it is woven into their very skin and bone, it flows through them like blood.
And the Israelites knew back then as they know today, that life is in the blood, words that spared Joseph from the hands of his brothers, blood, flowing through us binds us to our stories when we take them into ourselves and make them a part of us.
It tickles me when I see Addie learning to kneel and pray at the rail. He sees his mommy do it and so he knows it is good, he knows it is important. Sure, he’s squirmy, like you might expect from a child.
But he is learning what holiness is. He is learning what faith means to the people he loves. He is learning, even while we aren’t looking, to live out the faith he is inheriting at this very moment.
And nobody around him is even suggesting that he take a class, or take a test or learn the names of the disciples or that he memorize the Stations of the Cross. He is simply watching it lived out around him, by the people who love him and the people he loves.
Like generations of Jews who have read the Haggadah, heard the questions, drank the wine and tasted the bitter herb and felt, even the smallest spark of the feelings of the Israelites as they fled; but far more importantly, they lived the story with their parents and their friends, they lived it out in such a way as it became a part of them, became a part of their blood.
So there is something a little south of holy in letting a chance go by to bring the story into, not just our ears, but our whole bodies, bringing them in and making them a part of our lives, a part of our blood.
We model everything that we want our children to be and when we teach them to kneel, to serve others, to not just tell the story but to live it, we are giving them the gift of blood, the gift of the life of the story and not just the theology, the passion of the love and not just the poetry, the oomph and not just the aha!
When it works it is a beautiful thing, something the world might just be transformed by if we dare to do it.
When we let it slip, follow the world away from the things that are weird, off-putting, challenging, we might as well stop thinking of ourselves as a place that is trying to help transform the world right now. This would make a nice coffee shop, or maybe an art-house movie theater.
Washing feet is weird. It forces you out of your comfort zone and into, directly into someone else’s comfort zone and you push each other a little, one has to serve and the other has to cope with what it feels like to be served, what it feels like to have another person lift your foot, bathe you, make you clean.
I was explaining it to Seraphina on the way over tonight. We wash feet because we want to show our friends that we are not above service; that we embrace our callings as Christians to serve and seek to find ways to do it.
We didn’t have to look very far, Jesus put this in front of us and told us what He was doing.
What I didn’t tell her was that we were doing it for her. We enact these rituals so that we are seen being disciples, living grace, serving others with joy and with humility and with passion and with solemnity. All at once.
We do it to teach her and others like her that life is sometimes complicated, you can be happy and sad and serious and funny altogether, it’s not like it is on television, either cartoons or cop show, the news or Comedy Central.
We do it so that she and others like her can grow into people who are unafraid to lend a hand, stoop to help, kneel to serve and then get back to what they were doing, to teach that it is not so foreign a concept, not so odd after all.
To be honest, we mostly do it because Jesus did it and commended it to us, showing us a way to love one another we would not otherwise see, but I didn’t burden Seraphina with that either, there’ll be time for that later.
I was at a synod event the other day, I spoke of it last Thursday. It was, as they say in the movies, unsatisfying.
One of the things I found particularly terrible was the perfunctory way in which the words of institution, the living words of Christ were offered as if they were no more important than instructions on hooking up your new wireless printer.
We need to feel these things as well as just doing them. They are our heritage and they are the words that tell us who we are and where we are bound and what we are doing and why it is important.
It is important.
Ask the Israelites and their inheritors, who have been asking the questions and eating the herbs and living out their faith for centuries now.
So we kneel, knowing that we work this into our blood, this story, this blessing, this faith so that we may pass it along to our children.
We kneel, to not simply hear the word but also to live it, to make living it as weird as it’s gonna be, and as familiar to us as breathing.
We kneel at the feet of the neighbor and welcome their ministry to us as well and the community is built, the blessing is shared, Christ is present and we are bound to Him in this service.
So we kneel, and we know – – – that we will rise.