Streets in first century Palestine were not the clean and paved roads that we can take for granted today. They would have been rough and filled with human and animal waste, so much so that anyone walking them, mostly in sandals, would have filthy and very smelly feet.
So when guests arrived at a house for a meal, a slave or low-status servant would be assigned the task of cleaning their feet. To the shock of the apostles, Jesus washed their feet instead of allowing a servant or slave to do it. Peter, in particular, was stunned that Jesus did this and could not see the reason for it.
Jesus explained, as we have heard, that he was setting an example for them to follow. As his disciples, they were not to consider any act of care or service too low or beneath their dignity. To be a true child of God and belong to his Kingdom one needed to be a servant rather than a master. He came to serve, not to be served, and expected the same of us.
In the Christian calendar today is known as Maundy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ is a translation of the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning ‘command’ and refers to the command from Jesus to love as he has loved us. Washing the feet of his disciples was a practical example from Jesus of what it means to live this, his new commandment: ‘love one another as I have loved you’.
The Eucharist, of course, is THE memorial Jesus has left us of his love. However, serving others in love is the practical way by which we respond to this love.
This very evening countless priests, bishops and the Pope are re-enacting this lowly action of Jesus by washing people’s feet. We do it now in this church to visibly remind us of what Jesus is calling each one of us to do. In the small things we do to help and serve others, great love can be shown; and, as Mother Theresa was fond of saying, ‘if you cannot do great things, do little things with great love.’
May this memorial of the Lord’s love inspire and strengthen us – in our families, in work and the other ways available to us – to go on offering our lives in the humble and loving service of others.
Holy Name, Jesmond
18 April 2019