John Bell - Iona Community
Exodus 12: 1-14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 John 13, 1-17, 21b-35
Doing not Speaking
Maundy Thursday is not really a time for speaking.
It's a time for doing
We are not here to say what Jesus said,
but to do what Jesus did.
On the night on which he was betrayed, he washed feet and broke bread; and he did this during a meal.
It was not before the meal that he did the footwashing. It wasn't after all the eating had been done.
It was during – that is odd in itself - made odder because he took off his clothes to do so.
- that's what it says in the Gospel reading -
We have to supplement the fond depictions of the last supper by imagining a semi-naked Jesus kneeling on the ground washing the disciples' feet.
They would be leaning on one elbow around the table, their feet sticking out behind them, unable to have face to face conversation with Jesus, only able to know his touch.
….a much more anonymous ceremony than will be re-enacted tonight all over the world.
Priests may remove their copes or chasubles but they won't strip to the waist. Those whose feet are washed see what's happening, and prepare themselves for it; it won't suddenly be done to them.
Jesus lays down his clothes and picks up a basin during a meal.
HOSTS DON'T DO THAT
Hosts don't do that.
Hosts don't leave tables to wash feet.
In the ancient world slaves did that.
And in Jesus' experience, women did it, for his feet were twice anointed by women
- once with the tears of girl with an immoral reputation,
- once with the precious ointment of a female friend.
And they – the women – did the washing of feet not before, not after, but during the meal.
What was it that made Jesus do the same? Did he lay down his clothes because he was going to lay down his life.
Did he wash the feet like a servant because only the one who serves humanity is able to save humanity?
Did he wash the feet during the meal because he was not afraid to show that unselfconscious love to his friends which women had so wonderfully shown to him?
Did he plan it in advance, or was he so moved at the thought of leaving those he loved that he wanted them to know that then as for ever he can make them, make us clean?
HE TOOK BREAD
On the night on which he was betrayed and during a meal, he took bread. And while the washing of feet might have been spontaneous, the sharing of food with his disciples was a practiced art. He had been with them at meals on many occasions - at Passovers in the houses of Matthew, Zaccheus, Simon the leper, Simon the Pharisee, Martha and Mary, Lazarus, Joanna and Susanna.... to mention only those whose names we know. There were other meals – like the wedding feast at Cana
But on such occasions he was always a guest, sometimes the guest of honour.
Here, on this night, he is the host.
He ensures that a place has been prepared.
He enacts the motherliness hidden in one of the most popular and revered texts in scripture.
Several years ago, I was working at a huge conference held in Anaheim, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It was a conference of around 12,000 Christian educators, most of them Roman Catholic. Daily mass took place not in a church but in the Anaheim sports stadium, a huge auditorium which usually hosted basketball tournaments or pop concerts.
The final mass was a very impressive affair.
The stadium – with four wrap-around galleries was packed.
A band of musicians struck up the processional hymn, and through the arena came a succession of dancers, each carrying huge banners which where waved over the heads of those on the ground level.Behind the dancers came a procession of perhaps 200 priests, each wearing a cream cassock and purple stole. Behind them bishops from the local and neighbouring diocese, and last of all Cardinal Mahoney, the Archbishop of Los Angeles.
Even more impressive was Cardinal Mahoney's homily to the conference, not just for its content, but because it was delivered in three languages – English, because half the diocese is anglo; Spanish because half the diocese is Latino. And then the cardinal went over to one side of the auditorium to speak with his fingers to people who were deaf and dumb.
But more impressive yet was the preparation of the gifts, the time when the altar – a 25 foot stretch of wooden tables was prepared for the eucharist. Two small Mexican women walked up the stairs to the altar carrying a huge bundle of cloth. They put in the centre, and walking in opposite directions they unwound it, until standing at the extremes of the tables, they billowed the cloth up, and let it gently fall and then reverenced the altar.
And then I remembered the line in Psalm 23 which is so evocative of our Lord's passion...
...not the line about him being a shepherd,
...not the line about there being an enemy sitting with him
...not the line about the dark valley, evocative of Gethsemane
...not the line about the cup which is filled to overflowing which
he accepts as his fate
...no...not these lines.. this line:
'You have prepared a table for me.'
It is a female image. Most people who prepare tables are female in most cultures. And here Jesus, who has had tables prepared for him by countless women, sees to the preparation of the table for his disciples.
THE NIGHT BEFORE EXECUTION
How would most people spend their last night before execution?
….preparing a last attempt at their defence...
….screaming at God against the injustice...
….having weeping relatives hang round their neck
….issuing last orders
….psyching themselves up to endure torture
….putting a stiff upper lip on it...manly fashion.
Jesus chooses to do for others what women have done for him:
and prepared a place at a table
having loved his own,
he loves them to the last.
That's why we're here.
That's why we're here