I wanted to start with a question I often ask when reflecting on the sacramental life. I often ask it at Baptisms and Weddings. It is the question ‘what are we doing here?’. I wonder how you would answer that tonight.
I imagine the disciples of Jesus might have been thinking the same thing … some with ready answers about revolution and political power having arrived in Jerusalem. Some with a sense of spiritual mission. Not many understanding what was about to happen to their leader.
To answer that question ‘what are we doing here?’ tonight I want to highlight a difference between symbolism and service. To suggest to you that while the symbolic is important it does not truly answer the question of why we are here. We are not just here to perform rituals. We as Christians have a call beyond the symbolic into the actual. Let us explore this idea.
You see the first time Jesus washed the feet of his disciples is was not a symbolic act as such. It was a task which needed performing. Someone had to wash the feet. It was a practical matter of service. So what we see in the original act of Jesus washing feet is not a symbolic matter but an example of practical service and servitude. So to begin with let us always remember that we are not a people called to symbolic gestures alone .. we are called in the example of Jesus to see what needs doing in our world and then to do it. To look around our environment and our community and see the needs that need meeting .. and to serve these needs. It is unlikely anyone really needs their feet washing tonight so unless we allow this symbolic service to remind us of the need to see real needs and meet them in our world then we perform an empty ritual.
How then do we move from ritual to service? My answer is that we focus on what we might call the ministry of presence for the Christian. The importance of being present in our world is vital if we are to love others as we have been called to love. But this is not quite so simple as it might seem. It perhaps seems obvious to suggest that in order to show love and compassion and to serve others we need to be present. But being truly present is increasingly something we do not do well in our culture or indeed in the Church.
One of the greatest problems is the fact contemporary culture has created a sense of admiration for the multi-tasker! The possibility of dividing mind and body is encouraged and praised. It is in some ways the bedrock of modern thought set in motion with Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’. In this statement the philosopher argues we can separate body and mind and promotes the practice of letting our minds wander. We often practice separation when we allow our minds to wander when we are doing non-intellectual work such as washing dishes or mowing lawns .. tasks which are perhaps the equivalent of washing feet in ancient palestinian culture. To be honest we are probably guilty of it in quite important things too.
Imagine Christ washing His friends feet and partaking in the meal in the Upper Room with his mind elsewhere. If anyone had the right to be distracted at that point it was Jesus. But in his act of service Christ calls us in this upper room to be present. To be focused. To be there.
We are most powerfully introduced to the call to presence in the story of Mary and Martha. You will remember that Mary since the arrival of Jesus in her house had sat at his feet listening and engaging. Martha whilst present in the house had not stopped running around trying to engage with everything other than Jesus. She was there but she was not there. When she complains to Jesus He tells her Mary has chosen the better way.
One of the things Jesus is really pointing to in the upper room when washing his friends feet and in his response to Martha is the importance of communion through presence. Physical and emotional and spiritual presence in all we do and say and are. In this act of washing his friends feet Jesus was committing to being present in all these ways. By being present Jesus was able to see a real and physical need around him, in his physical environment and surroundings. To engage with that need in an emotional and spiritual manner. And to reveal this emotional and spiritual communion through a physical act.
Body, mind and spirit in one single act, one single act of communion. Overcoming internal and external division. Finding true communion of heart, mind, body and soul within and outside of ourselves. For those who follow Jesus it is not a case of ‘I think therefore I am’ .. for the Christian, we follow in the pronouncement of God which states simply ‘I AM’.
And the importance of such a statement is not simply in its affirmation of self but that we are called to turn it on its head in our acts of love and service and say not only ‘I AM’ … but ‘YOU ARE’. You are not only what you think. You are not present in body only in this world. You matter. You are one. You are not simply how you feel or what you believe or how you look … YOU SIMPLY ARE .. no distinction no separation. YOU ARE in a deep and profound and meaningful way. God acknowledges in Jesus that YOU ARE!!
The example of Christ in the washing of feet is therefore a command to be present. To see in each encounter and each act the chance to commune with one another, with God and with ourselves. To overcome isolation and an egocentric experience. Not to miss the chance through being somewhere other than where we are to say ‘I AM’ and ‘YOU ARE’ to one another and to God.