Tonight is Holy Thursday. One of the scenes we often recall on this night is the scene in John’s gospel where Jesus, knowing this will be in final time with his disciples, wants to set the tone for what lies ahead. He knows the fate that awaits him… and the fate that awaits them, and he wants to try and prepare them as best he can. He will tell them many things in their time together about what will happen in the coming days—John 14–16. (As is clear from their reactions, they do not understand it all in that moment; it is only later, when it all plays out just as Jesus says, that they begin to piece it together.) He will pray for himself, for them, and for the world—John 17. And then he will lead them forth to face his fate—John 18–19. But before all that, however, Jesus becomes the living embodiment of what he is about to teach them—John 13 (esp vv 1-15).
The prelude to Christ’s suffering on the cross to save all of humanity is his picking up a towel and stooping to serve those he loved.
After the meal was over, Jesus shocks his followers by stooping to do the job that even the lowliest servant tried to avoid. The weather in Palestine is hot and dry, the streets of Jerusalem were not paved, and the footwear of that day did not cover the feet. Make no mistake that what Jesus was about to do was a dirty task that no one wanted to be the one stuck with. Yet, Jesus voluntarily does it. He strips himself of his outer clothing (perhaps a foreshadowing of all that he will soon be “involuntarily” stripped of?) and stoops to wash his disciples feet. As he puts back on his clothes, and they pick their jaws up off the floor, Jesus doesn’t miss the teachable moment.
Jesus tells the disciples that if they want to be his followers, they must follow him in every way—and that means they too must stoop to serve one another, and stoop to serve the world.
Every time I read this passage and I hear Jesus say, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” it challenges me. I am by nature pretty me-focused and service forces you to be other-focused—whether the other is your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your co-workers, etc. You have to put their agenda on par with your own, and that requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is by its very nature, hard. Service is not something that tends to come naturally to us; it’s something we have to practice.
On Holy Thursday we get a chance to practice service. When we participate in foot-washing or hand-washing, we reenact Jesus’ example and intentionally stoop to serve others. Often, we do this in pairs. To have another person wash my hands is always a humbling experience. Likewise, to have someone else allow me to serve them this way requires trust and vulnerability on the part of that person, and is always very moving.
Now consider what this night must have been like for the disciples, what it would feel like to have the hands of the Lord of Creation wash your feet? It’s almost beyond comprehension; I can sympathize with Peter’s reaction to it all.
Consider too that those same hands that so tenderly washed the disciples feet in the Upper Room would, in just a few short hours, be bruised and broken as Jesus endured torture, first at the home of the High Priest, and especially during his time with Pilate. (Luke says that Herod got in on the act as well!) These same beautiful hands that stooped to serve on Thursday would be stretched out on a cross and nailed into place on Friday. Jesus’ hands—and in fact, his entire body—would be broken to heal our brokenness—i.e., so that all of creation might be made whole and holy again. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s important to remember that the original disciples didn’t necessarily know that Easter was coming. (Scripture can sometimes make it seem like they did, but I simply don’t think that is true.) For them, the Last Supper was very somber, and the turn of events was unexpected; the events that followed were downright gut-wrenching, as they watched the man they called teacher and friend for three years betrayed, arrested, and subjected to torture, culminating in one of the most brutal forms of execution ever invented at the hands of their oppressors and enemies—the Romans.
Part of our problem, perhaps, is that more than 2000 years later, we know how this story ends and, naturally, we tend to want to rush to the “good” part. That’s understandable, but we need to resist that urge. I think it takes something away from our experience of Easter if we rush to the end of the story, or worse yet, skip over the darkness entirely and simply show up on Easter Morning when Christ is risen and all seems hopeful and light-filled.
We need to let ourselves spend some time in the darkness of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We need to contemplate how it would have felt to not know how this story was going to end. Then the startling news of the empty tomb and the light of Easter Morning will shine out all the more!