Friday, May 6, 2011

Washing Hands and Feet

Two weeks ago was Good Friday, which is the remembrance of the day that Christ was crucified and died. It is a solemn and sad day for Christians. We can imagine the anguish that the disciples felt when they lost their teacher and friend, but did not yet understand that he would be returning soon.

The day before Good Friday (i.e., the Thursday before Easter) is referred to as “Holy Thursday” or “Maundy Thursday.” It is the time when many Christian churches commemorate the Last Supper including Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples. Like many churches, our family’s church reenacts the foot washing.

To non-Christians, or even to Christians from different faith traditions, the foot washing ritual is admittedly sort of strange. Indeed, I myself never participate in the foot washing. I hate to be a wet blanket, but it is just not my cup of tea.

I even felt that way prior to an uncomfortable experience when my husband and I were serving in a church ministry years ago and the ministry’s leaders surprised the volunteers with a previously unpublicized foot washing activity. On that day, my toenail polish was unfortunately chipping and I was mortified to have to remove my loafers to present my feet for the leaders of our ministry to wash. It was not a positive spiritual experience for me.

So, even though I don’t enjoy participating in foot washing ceremonies directly, I am moved by them as a participant. This year, prior to the ritual, our pastor gave a sermon to give some context for what we were about to do. She explained that the point of the foot washing was not to just model humility. Instead, at the Last Supper, Jesus knew what was coming; he knew he would not be with his disciples much longer and he was concerned for them. He wanted them to have a model of love to take care of one another after he was gone. The foot washing ritual is an opportunity for the church to express their love and care for one another.

We love each other because Christ first loved us. That is such a beautiful concept. So, despite the social awkwardness of washing the feet of non-family members (sometimes people we barely know or don’t know at all), the ritual is quite moving. At my church, people are moved to tears in many cases and hugging each other. Heck, even though I never left the pew, I was in tears during the whole ceremony.

In the pre-foot washing sermon, our pastor reminded us that in preparation for Easter, we had actually read another story recently about washing. She reminded us that the weekend before at church we had just read the account of Pontius Pilate washing his hands after acquiescing to the crowd’s demands to crucify Jesus. In that account, Pilate washed his hands to symbolically show that Jesus’s blood was not on his hands. Though he did nothing to protect Jesus, he rejected responsibility for what was going to happen to him. Pilate looked the other way and refused to intervene. Though Jesus would be executed under his authority, Pilate insisted he bore no responsibility.

In her sermon, our pastor pointed out that these two contrasting stories of washing were complementary. Jesus uses washing to model care and love of his disciples. By contrast, Pilate’s symbolic hand-washing epitomized his refusal to help someone in need, his refusal to be bothered, his refusal to do anything on someone else’s behalf that might require some sacrifice or effort. Our pastor taught that was an insightful contrast, and we should pray for strength to not follow Pilate’s example but to follow Jesus’s. She noted that being a Christ follower is not easy. It is hard, but it is a choice we freely make.

I’ve been thinking about that sermon and the comparison of the two readings. It seems to have great relevance to the themes in recent blog posts—the humanitarian tragedy that has been going on in Mexico and on this side of the border as migrants are exploited and die in the desert. I pray that I (and all of us) have the courage to follow Jesus’s example and not Pilate’s in that context and others.

2 Chronicles 15:7

But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.

Matthew 25:35

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

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