In the night in which he knew Peter would deny him three times, Jesus got down on his hands and knees in an act of loving service to wash Peter’s feet. Perhaps here is the place to begin! Here is the story of the Passion in miniature.
Peter will turn away, be torn from Christ this night, instead of following. Jesus tells him plainly ahead of time, but without rancor. When Peter asks Jesus, “‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.’” That is, later on, after the passion, Peter will find his voice, he will follow and become a leader of others.
Jesus - denied and betrayed by us - must go all the way to the cross, that we will be changed, that we will be redeemed, and that we will desire to follow. Afterward! Jesus turns us, to desire what is life-giving, by giving his life.
So after the meal -this last supper together- Jesus gives them a sign; a promise, a gift of hope, which they don’t quite understand or appreciate at the time, but which will sustain them, later. This Foot Washing! And if you think about it, who wouldn’t want to have their tired and dusty ol’ feet washed and cared for?
In my baby book, there is a picture of me getting washed in the kitchen sink as an infant. And each of my siblings have a similar snap shot in their book. I’m guessing they make something out of plastic now-a-days, something safer for baby baths? But then, it was simply sitting in the porcelain sink, with only a parents hand to cradle you. I have no recollection of that first bath, lovingly gifted me by my mother, but whenever I look at the photo, the action is unmistakable. Helpless, not yet fully formed, totally dependent – parents do all the giving, granting life or death each day, washing us clean and preparing the way for what is to come afterward – later, when we will understand and be able to grasp hold of the desire to be life-givers too, to wash our own children, and share the new commandment Jesus gave us, to love one another.
Jesus, about to be betrayed, denied, and crucified, by us, loves us to the end, and gives us a simple gift, a foot washing, the gift and sign of a new day, if we but come and journey with him, all the way, through cross and resurrection. We are Peter, promising to stand by our man, our woman, and then somehow, as things turn out differently than we’d expected, we find ourselves fleeing away, abandoning, instead of what we had desired, in all good faith.
But love, Jesus’ love, does not desert us, but always cradles us and holds us steady. We cannot always depend on parental love to be gracious and pure, to guide and protect us in our years of dependency and maturation. So in Jesus, our true brother and teacher, we learn what confession and forgiveness, laying on hands and absolution, really are.
In the foot washing we have the Gospel in miniature. It is not a requirement, to be washed, but only a gift. A loving gift we are now able to offer one another as a sign of the forgiveness we have in Jesus, the blessed message and meaning, of the cross and resurrection, which saves and transforms the whole world.