The Cathedral of St Stephen
In the time of Jesus, foot-washing was the most menial of tasks, and it fell to the lowest ranking servant, the lowest of the low. No-one would choose to be a foot-washer; it would fall to them only by force of circumstance and because they had no other options. That’s one of the reasons why Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is strange: he didn’t have to do it. He did have other options, such as asking them to wash his feet, since he was the master. But no: Jesus the master freely chooses to wash the feet of his disciples; and in doing so, he turns the world on its head, which is why Peter protests so strongly. The voice of protest is the voice of convention, defending a status quo familiar to human beings but foreign to God.
That was during the meal. By the end of the meal, it turns out that the washing isn’t just with water. It’s also with blood, as we see when Jesus offers the bread which is his Body and the wine which is his Blood. Jesus chooses not only to wash the feet of his disciples; he chooses also to wash away the sin of the world with his blood. This is the flow of God’s mercy which never ceases, the tide from heaven let loose each time we celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacrament of the Body broken and the Blood poured out.
As we listen to the story of the passion and death of Jesus in these days, it can seem that he is the victim of brutal circumstances, swept away against his will by powers he couldn’t control. But the Gospels go to some lengths to make clear that this isn’t so. Just as he freely chooses to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus freely chooses to undergo the humiliation of his passion and death in order to wash away the sin of the world and break the power of death. That’s why, in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, we say that “he was betrayed and entered willingly into his passion”.
The Gospels show an innocent Jesus as much in control as he is in the know. He insists that it’s his decision to lay down his life: “no-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). He knows who it is who will betray him, both Judas and Peter. He knows the other disciples will scatter. He rebukes Peter for striking with his sword, pointing out that he could call upon “twelve legions of angels” if he wished. He calmly refuses to engage with religious and civil authorities; and if he does choose to engage, he’s in charge of the conversation. He speaks serenely to the women of Jerusalem as he carries his cross to Calvary; and, once he gets there, he speaks just as serenely to his mother and John and to the condemned man who dies beside him. He also prays for those who are his murderers. This is not a man swept away by forces he can’t control. On the contrary, it is a man in control who chooses freely to undergo the atrocities of his passion and death. Love is always a decision; and perfect love is a decision such as this.
What we celebrate this evening and through the next three days calls us to decide. Ours is a culture obsessed with individual choice, and the events of Easter put before us a choice that lies at the heart of all our choices. Just as Jesus freely chooses to wash the feet of the disciples and to wash away the sin of the world, we too are called to choose the way of his Cross and Resurrection, not only as the foot-washers of the world but as those who sacrifice ourselves, shedding blood to wash away the sin of the world.
To this we say yes not only this evening but every time we come to the Eucharist, the supreme gift we celebrate on this Holy Thursday. We are the bread, stuff of the earth, which becomes the Body broken for the life of the world; we are the wine, stuff of the earth, which becomes the Blood poured out for the life of the world. Unless we become the Body broken and the Blood poured out, our celebration of the Eucharist, however devout and beautiful it may be, will have no power. It would be as if the bread remained simply bread, the wine simply wine. But they are transformed by the Holy Spirit, and so too are we to be.
Yet for that to happen, we need first to turn away from the death-dealing status quo that Peter defends and allow Jesus to wash not just our feet but to wash us all over, as the washing of our Baptism has its full effect. Then we need to recognise that our sins must be washed away by the Blood of the Lamb, not once but time and again in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. If that is our free and conscious choice, not simply the result of force of habit or cultural pressure, then the Church will rise from this evening and from the Easter celebration as what the Lord wants us to be – the water-bearer who washes the feet of the world and the bearer of the Blood which washes away the sin of the world. Amen.