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For Maundy Thursday

By Garwood Anderson

The Maundy Thursday liturgy is probably my favorite of the year. So much happens, from the washing of feet to the Garden of Gethsemane to the celebration in the Upper Room to the Garden of Repose to the Stripping of the Altars. The evening is almost chaotic, dizzying. This is one of those cases when Gospel harmonizing (or is it simply conflating?), normally looked down upon in my guild, yields nutritious fruit. Liturgical scholars can tell me if that is intentional or merely the accumulation of traditions leaving an effect. But it does leave an effect. All the more if we keep watch through the night — or even part of it — and wake up on Good Friday a little out of sorts, the state of our bodies betokening the ominous events ahead.

By the end of all of that, it is easy to forget where we started: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. The meaning of the event — at least the uppermost layer — is transparent. It is an act of great humility. By all rights, he shouldn’t be doing this. If we don’t have in mind the rebuke that will follow or call to mind Peter’s tendency for quixotic nobility, his protestations come off well: “Lord, do you wash my feet? … You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:6, 8). As anyone who has submitted to the re-enactment of this rite on Maundy Thursday can attest, this is highly uncomfortable, and even in a society like ours that wishes to imagine itself as unstratified or in a Christian community that understands itself constituted in this story. Jesus’ determination to do it does not help assuage the discomfort. What he is doing is unseemly.

While we preachers have made a cottage industry of castigating Peter for saying the quiet part out loud, perhaps we should not be too quick to judge. There is reason to think that he was simply saying what the others were thinking. Someone needed to say it. Peter’s words function as the audible thought bubble hanging over the disciples’ heads. His interjections and protestations are not only essential to our evangelists’ narrative characterization of Simon Peter; they propel the unfolding drama of a misfit messiah chastening the hopes and aspirations of his would-be courtiers.

Beyond that, it turns out that the very things for which readers and preachers upbraid “silly Peter” somehow manage to persist in the minds and hearts of generations of disciples who would succeed him and struggle just the same to shrug off courtier aspirations. The rhetorical technique that has Peter showing obtuseness for the sake of its refutation should have put to rest his objections for all generations, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

A mascot messiah Jesus still rules the imaginations of Christians on the right and the left, the compliant talisman for our causes. It is as if the mutually rebuking encounter of Peter and Jesus at Caesarea Philippi hadn’t happened, or that we see Peter in the encounter but not ourselves. Perhaps we’re not so brazen as Peter to rebuke Jesus openly, but each time we conscript him to our causes unthinkingly, we rebuke him implicitly, leaving him no opening by which to return the favor. Jesus is for climate justice, the sanctity of the lives of the unborn, and a deftly recontextualized originalist reading of the Second Amendment — or at least, selectively, each of these we find ourselves aligned with.

And, while our minds are on Maundy Thursday, Peter’s objections to the washing of his feet live on, mirroring his discomfort that Jesus should present himself as a servant. It may be that, like Peter, we are not only uncomfortable with Jesus as our servant — that would be a noble instinct on the face of it — but hidden beneath that protestation is the more existential concern that, if we let Jesus behave like that, it would change the way we should behave.

He says as much:

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John 13:13-16)

There is a lot at stake in Peter’s “Never, Lord,” for him and for us. If Peter’s attempt at putting Jesus in his proper place, too much an object of our admiration and devotion that he should ever serve us, should succeed, he will not only have obviated Jesus of a task too mean for him but would have released himself and us from a way too lowly for us. And it would be the best kind of piety. High Christology, resolute obeisance to the Worthy One.

I would only hope, being in the same circumstance, I would have strenuously voiced Peter’s objections myself. I might also hope for all of us, that, seeing Jesus wrapped in a towel, kneeling at our feet, we should never again think that anything is beneath us. When those having been washed begin to wash feet, it is a certain sign that God is putting all things in subjection under his feet.

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