The time we currently use to remember the past is part of flowing time. Events can have already passed, but we remember it on anniversary dates. For example, birthdays and the date of losing a loved family are like that. We also remember the past through our action. We sometimes think of memories while walking along the path we walked with our loved ones.
The early church community used the device of time to remember Jesus Christ after his ascension. They remembered Jesus in time intervals, such as a day, a week, and a year. In particular, the year spent in memory of the life cycle of Jesus Christ is called the church calendar.
The Lent we observe is a 40-day journey starting from Ash Wednesday, and this week is the last week of Lent, Holy Week. In particular, the three days from this evening to Easter are called the Triduum (Triduum Paschale). We meditate on the life of Jesus Christ as he went to the cross every Sunday, starting with Ash Wednesday. Today, Holy Thursday, we proceed to the place of the Passover Supper, which was prepared according to Jewish custom. Jesus Christ did the lowest servant’s job at that supper, washing the disciples’ feet.
Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday. It is speculated that the word Maundy comes from the first word of the new commandment (Mandatum novum do vobis). This word can be found in John 13:34 in the Holy Thursday text of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Although the RCL text spans three years in one cycle, the text of Holy Week is the same every year, especially today’s text which brings us to the scene where Jesus Christ washes his feet for his disciples (John 1- 17, 31b-35)
Jesus Christ knew he had little time left. At the end of his own life, Jesus still loved his people, and he loved them to the end (13:1). Jesus was facing his death. However, he was spending the last hours caring for the vulnerable, his disciples rather than caring for himself. Jesus did the work of a minor servant -washing the dirty feet. Is prepared death possible? I started to pray after my father passed away suddenly a few years ago: “God, please let me know before death comes upon me. Let me face it calmly in your grace. And give me enough time to prepare for it.”
Most of us have never faced our own death. Therefore, there is a limit to looking into the situation of Jesus as a general guess. However, still, it is clear that Jesus was preparing for his death, and in the process, he gave an implication of what he had done during his public life. In addition, through his last hours as a teacher, Jesus still taught his disciples, who had followed him for three years.
Despite Peter’s refusal saying that the greater one does not wash the feet of the little ones (v6), Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Washing feet is an act of humility and service. Moreover, it is an act of love. Doing this, Jesus told his disciples to wash each other’s feet (v14) and asks them to follow his example (v15). Jesus gave his disciples (v33) a new commandment to love one another as He loved them (v34).
Why did Jesus give these teachings even in the midst of facing his death, being troubled in his spirit (v21)? Could it be so difficult to obey the new commandment? Is not love voluntarily becoming a little one to serve a neighbour or stranger who does not seem to have anything better than oneself? In the most vulnerable situations of his life, Jesus Christ humbled himself over those more vulnerable than him and served them with Self-Giving Love. He set an example and passed on the love to follow that example.
Washing feet is a symbolic act. However, humility, service, and love begin to be practiced through such act. Jesus showed his disciples how to begin. Moreover, he was on his way to perfection. Washing feet is usually done before a meal, but Jesus got up and washed their feet while having the meal (v4). Now the real meal begins, during which, Jesus gave thanks for the bread and wine and gave them a new meaning. The bread was the body of Jesus, and the cup was His blood. It is the bread of life and the cup of salvation, given “for you and for many,” that is, for the disciples and the people of the world.
He moved from the lowest place where he had washed the disciples’ feet, and as the owner of the table, he distributed food to the disciples. And he proclaimed the gospel, the ultimate goal of his life and teaching. Jesus chose to break himself down for service of others rather than raising from his vulnerable state. The shattered body was divided and passed on to the vulnerable disciples and to us through the 2000-year history.
Then, Jesus got up from his seat and went up to the mountain. Jesus’ body was shattered and torn little by little with every step, and on the highest mountain, he shows us the perfection of his service of love. On a high mountain, we will see the saviour of the world hung on the wood of the cross (Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit), who’s love that will save even the most vulnerable souls of the lowest.
Rev. An-Wei Nehemiah Tan is Chinese by origin, a Korean by birth, a Taiwanese by passport. He obtained his MDiv and ThM in Liturgics and Homiletics at Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary (PUTS). He started an urban ministry called Underwood Ministry, which includes Café Underwood and Chinese-Korean bilingual worship in front of Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of INSiGHT. Click here for more articles: https://archive.cwmission.org/insight/