Holy Week: Maundy Thursday
The last meal. It ends with a ritual which by its very strangeness is key to our understanding of what Holy Week is about. Jesus washes the feet of his friends at the end of his last meal with them, rather than in the moment they step through the door, as would have been customary. So, assuming a slave or servant had already done the preliminary washing, the feet would have been clean. What, then, does Jesus mean when he says that ‘not all of you are clean’? The usual assumption is that he’s talking about Judas, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think he’s inviting us to forget about outward appearances and focus instead on those aspects of ourselves, our hidden selves, that, like Peter, we would prefer Jesus not to see, let alone wash.
Peter does not initially understand the wider implications of this nuanced moment, but he trusts enough in his Lord that there is something more that he needs and that it has something to do with the washing of his feet, possibly for the second time, so he acquiesces and, in that moment, begins his own personal journey of healing and renewal.
Even so, he will fall asleep an hour or so later, while Jesus wrestles in prayer with temptations too mighty for Peter to begin to understand. Peter will run away. He will deny he ever knew his Lord, but he will not despair. Instead, and perhaps only just in time, he will recall his own words, asking for the whole of him to be washed, and not just his feet.
He will also recall the flash of recognition that passed between him and Jesus in that moment, the recognition of a love that is there to stay, that cannot be defeated by Peter’s cowardice, or by any of our all too human failures when we are put to the test, even in the smallest of things.
The washing of the disciples’ feet is the point on which the Passion narrative turns. It turns on a tiny, barely noticeable, exchange. There passes between Jesus and Peter in that moment of drawing away, of Peter’s fear of exposure, a slightly querulous, humorous look. It is the look we catch when we protest that our failings and shortcomings, however small, or however large, are beyond the reach of a God who comes to serve the least of those who truly love him.
Even so, when we are tired, run down and at a loss for words, or for what to think in the context of the various crises the world is having to deal with right now, talk of love seems superfluous almost to the point of irrelevance. But it is the love that Peter experiences in the confusion of this slightly embarrassing moment that we hold to, not only for ourselves in whatever mental or spiritual state we happen to be in, but for a world which right now seems to be spiralling out of control, out of God’s reach. Our will to hold it in the look of love exchanged in that moment of foot washing is, perhaps, its only hope.