Some friends of mine invited me to lunch this past week; they wanted to eat at a sidewalk cafe in downtown. I drove to lunch dreading the thought of Spring Break traffic and the commotion produced by the many hapless tourists who wander aimlessly about at this time of year. Lunch was everything I expected, and more.
Next to our table were two tables inhabited by people who had brought their dogs to lunch; the dogs were very jealous of one another, and spent the whole time growling in menacing tones. A Spring Breaker, who was as drunk as he was young (very), accosted our waiter, and demanded a glass of water be brought immediately. The high point of the meal came when a very scruffy, and smelly, fellow in jeans shorts and an unbuttoned shirt spied my clergy collar. He stumbled over, bent down while trying not to fall, and started a sad tale of how long it’s been since he’d eaten a meal; I’m guessing it had been quite a while since his most recent bath, as well.
I couldn’t decide whether the on-going street theatre at that sidewalk cafe was a comedy or a tragedy. Should I laugh or should I cry? Nor could I decide what to do about the truly unpleasant behavior of nearly everyone there. I was undecided about my own behavior, but I was quite certain about what the Lord expected of me. Those expectations are spelled out in detail in tonight’s Gospel reading.
For many years scholars were puzzled by the Gospel’s claim that Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples on the evening before his arrest and trial. The source of the puzzlement is the fact that the Passover feast in Jerusalem took place a day after Jesus’ Last Supper. The discovery and translation of the library at Qumran resolved the conundrum.
During Jesus’ lifetime the religious establishment in Jerusalem used a lunar calendar to determine the date of feasts, Passover being one. The anti-establishment groups within Judaism used a solar calendar; the feast of Passover on the solar calendar occurred one day earlier than on the lunar calendar. The Passover of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin occurred on the day we call Friday, while the reformist Passover occurred on the day we call Thursday.
Jesus’ Last Supper was a true Passover and a true representation of his preaching. He opted for the solar calendar used by Qumran, and probably, John the Baptist. The reformist nature of his Passover meal accorded perfectly with his message of repentance and a renewed Covenant. The foot washing event in tonight’s Gospel reading was emblematic of Jesus’ ministry. He spent his time with sinners and outcasts. He rejected the social “status quo” of his time, and he challenged both the powerful and the weak to examine critically their values systems. Washing his disciples’ feet was a prophetic action that spoke directly of upending the prevailing values system.
Foot washing was a menial, but necessary, task. The host of a dinner party was obliged to provide his guests with servants who would wash the dust and dirt from their feet before the meal. Jesus performed for his disciples the humble service that would normally have been done by a household slave. It was for this reason that Peter protested against Jesus washing his feet. (John 13:8)
Jesus’ response signified that he was reversing the generally accepted values of honor and shame, and introducing a new teaching about laying down one’s life for others. He responded to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8) Just as one would need one’s feet washed before participating in a dinner party, one also needs to be “washed” before participating in Jesus’ messianic banquet. The “washing” which is required for Jesus’ disciples is the spiritual cleansing made possible by his death.
The foot washing ritual we perform at this liturgy is not a token gesture; it is the pattern for a renewed life to which Jesus calls all of us. He laid down his life for the world, and he commands us to imitate him. As I said above, I was uncertain about what to do in response to the mild chaos I witnessed at lunch last week, but I was quite certain about what the Lord expected of me. The Lord Jesus expects all of his disciples to lay down their lives for one another and for the world. We signify our radically new values system in this foot washing ritual, and we pledge our fidelity to this new way of life in the reception of Holy Communion tonight. If we wish to follow Jesus to Resurrection we must first follow his example of selfless service. (John 13:15)