Foot washing was something a Gentile slave could be required to do, but never a Jewish slave. Foot-washing was typically something wives did for their husbands, children for their parents, and disciples for their teachers. There is undoubtedly a degree of intimacy involved in these last scenarios. And in Jesus' case, clearly there is a reversal of roles.* For Jesus calls his disciples his friends. By washing their feet he overcomes in this act of loving intimacy the inequality that exists between them. And so he establishes an intimacy with them that signals their access to everything he had received from his Father, even the glory that is his as Beloved Son.* He does what he sees the Father doing, what love always does. It defers, lowers itself; it gives itself away.
Perhaps Jesus was inspired to wash the apostles’ feet because he had been so touched by what was done for him six days before Passover at Bethany. There out of gratitude for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, Mary took a liter jar of costly perfumed oil and anointed Jesus’ feet most tenderly and dried them with her hair- an action at once most sensual, deferential and most loving. Perhaps this was something that inspired his own most loving action on this night before he died. In any event Peter cannot bear the thought of his teacher doing this. Probably it was something his wife had done for him many times. And doubtless he like the others is embarrassed by the intimacy of it, the touch, the loving condescension, and the unaffected tenderness, the unmanageability of the love that is so available. It’s too much; it’s disorienting, perhaps most of all, unmanageable in its tenderness. It is a parable, a parallel, a very tender, loving prelude to what he will do on the cross the next afternoon. “Let me do this for you,” he says.
That self-forgetful love of Father and beloved Son in the Spirit is what the cross will express. Jesus begs his Father on this night before he dies that we be swept up into this reality of the God’s own “mutual love and indwelling.”* “That the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” In Christ God reveals himself as lost in love, captivated by his own creatures who tragically reject him. But his love never ends; in his delighted, unending love he empowers us to be God’s children, siblings with him of the one Father, and even more his dear friends.
Photographs by Brother Brian.
* See Biblegateway.com.
* Written That You May Believe, Sandra Schneiders.
* Sacra Pagina: John, Francis Moloney.