“Maundy” Thursday. So called because on this day the Church celebrates Jesus’ institution of the “new commandment” (“mandatum novum” in Latin) following his washing of the disciples’ feet. The commandment is simple, poignant, and well-known:
A new commandment I give to you: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you ought to love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples–if you have love for one another. (John 13:34)
At some point during my high school years, a corporate epiphany seemed to descend upon the religious group I was part of: Christianity, at its core, was about love–not a bunch of a rules or religious rigamarole like we had been taught, but about love, plain and simple. Love God; love people. That was it. Do it and you’d be fine.
The overwhelming impression this corporate epiphany gave was that such a simplification made spirituality easier. The Jews of Jesus’ day, you know, had all those clunky and cumbersome laws they had to follow… a source of pride much of the time, and condemnation the rest of the time. God forbid that our spirituality should wind up like theirs. We need to keep our eye firmly on the ball, it was thought: love. Just love. Easy.
Fools. Live with this “new commandment” for awhile, and you’ll discover that love is anything but easy, anything but simple. Love is complex. Love is hard. Love is blood, sweat, and tears. Love is vexation. Love is tedium.
And love is often failure… because more often than not, not only do we not have the capacity within ourselves to love the way that we ought to love (notice that Jesus doesn’t repeat the well-known “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is hard enough, but “love just as I have loved you…” which is damn near impossible), but we don’t enough know what on God’s green earth it looks like to love. We try to be loving, but in the end we wind up doing what we always do… making a mess, villianizing, drawing new lines, excommunicating, crucifying (note Exhibit A: The World Vision Debacle).
John insists that this night, the final night together with his disciples, Jesus knew… Actually, all the Gospel writers insist that Jesus knew. He knew what was coming. Not just for him. Certainly he knew that, and trembled. But no, he knew more than that. He knew what was coming for his friends: betrayal, denial, fear, panic, good intentions left unfulfilled, promises broken, love that wasn’t quite enough… failure. He knew it all…
…so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4-5)
Peter. Judas. Doubting Thomas. The whole lot of these failures-in-love. He washed their feet. In love. Out of love. Love for the love-failures.
I have to wonder what he felt as he did so. Maybe he shed some tears, seeing Peter’s tears to come. Maybe he smiled–the kind of smile that comes from the deep knowing that in the end, it’s all gonna be alright. I wonder if he lingered with Judas… maybe he kissed Judas’ feet once or twice. Judas the sell-out. Judas who had sold his soul to the Devil. Judas who had ostensibly joined “the other team.” Who knows with a Love like this? With each one I’m tempted to imagine that Jesus, whom John calls the “Logos” through whom all things and all people were made… I imagine that Jesus as he washed their feet had something like their lives flash before his eyes. I imagine that he remembered them as dreams in the Father’s heart… little clusters of cells forming in the womb… vulnerable babes swaddled and nestled at their mother’s breast… children at play… young men finding their way in the world… the day he called each of them, inviting them into his friendship… and each of the memorable moments they had around the fire at night… moments of tenderness, hilarity, and self-disclosure… the Love that made them and had watched over every second of their lives and knew the impending debacle through and through was “loving them to the last.” What he must have felt, washing their feet.
I’ve lived with this long enough now to know that the impressive thing about Christianity is not what I or anyone one of us gives to God–our confused, often duplicitous, blind-as-a-bat attempts at love. I do believe that in the 15 years or so since I started seriously following Jesus, I’ve grown in love, as the New Testament claims that I should. But what is “growth” in love anyway when the standard is the Love with which we are loved? An ocean of Love lies open before us as the measure of the love we are called to, and we’ve “grown” from a thimbleful to a bucket’s worth? Big frickin deal. It still isn’t enough. It’s not even close.
No, the impressive thing is not my love. The impressive thing is the relentlessness of this Love. The Love that hung the sun and stars will wash our feet and hang naked and bleeding on a cross, poured out, satisfied, given for failures-in-love like us.
And It–He–will rise, and the message will come to us–we who are huddled in our homes, brokenhearted and despondent, still reeling over the horrible impossibility of what took place and what we did just two days earlier–“Come and meet me in Galilee…”
Galilee. Where it all began.
Galilee. Where we first met and fell in love with the Love
Galilee. Where he first and always calls the love-failures “friends.”
May you, you failure-in-love, rest in the Love today… letting Him wash your feet.
Grace and peace,