A Reflection by Bishop Jo on Maundy Thursday 2018
This week of all weeks, as Jesus’ friends, we seek to walk the way of the cross with him. Surely it is this walk that marks out the life of Christians?
It is somewhat rare for Jesus to ask something of his disciples in the gospels. When he does they tend to falter and fail (‘give them something to eat’, asks Jesus faced with the 5000 in Luke 9:13; or in Gethsemane, ‘sit here while I go over there and pray,’ Matt 26:36).
It’s even more rare for Jesus to utter an imperative, a command. There are two. And both are uttered on Maundy Thursday: ‘Do this is memory of me’, referring to the celebration of the Last Supper (Lk 22:19), and ‘Do as I have done to you’, referring to the washing of feet (John 13:15).
To be marked out as Jesus’ friends is to follow (and not falter) in these two directives: in the practice of Eucharist; and in getting on one’s knees and serving others, represented by Jesus’ act of washing feet. They are non-negotiable.
In my shoes at least, the first feels easier than the second (though if I really grasped the enormity of the Eucharistic prayer each time I say it or hear it, I wonder how I could say that). But moving on, to Jesus’ radical act of humble self-denying death-preparing service...
In Holy Week each year, I recall some memorable annual occasions of foot-washing, not least since coming to the Diocese of Guildford – taking the ‘do as I have done’ very literally. I was ‘outed’ as the new Bishop of Dorking on Maundy Thursday two years ago at St John’s CofE Primary School in Dorking: where a couple of the children were kind enough to allow me to wash their feet. Last year in the parish of Egham Hythe I had the privilege of washing many more feet, as whole year groups from Thorpe Lea Primary came to St Paul’s for Holy Week activities. This year I visited All Saints’ Juniors in Fleet, where some Year 3-6s proved willing, even eager, to have their feet washed by the bishop. (At this rate, it will take 80 years to get around all our church schools … I shall need to speed up!)
"Just like the vows I made at my ordination, each foot-washing is an act of consecration, a prayer and a promise"
The action is symbolic. The symbolism is more than the re-enactment of an ancient story and far more than a stunt ‘performed’ once-a-year with a photographer standing by. Yet I stick with the spectacle because I want it to hold me to account, to frame all that I seek to be and do as bishop: to serve any who are willing, in as inclusive a spirit as possible; to pay particular attention to children and recognise their prominence in the kingdom; to kneel very intentionally before those who might assume the reverse is more appropriate. Just like the vows I made at my ordination, each foot-washing is an act of consecration, a prayer and a promise. Of course the scenario involves so much irony – given the experience is always one of receiving far more than I ever offer. Moreover often enough it involves other people serving – planning, fetching, hosting, welcoming – just so that I can kid myself that I am serving others. Hah!
If it is to carry authenticity beyond my first day and my first act, or an annual day and an annual act, it has to become more than sheer symbolism. If the symbol has power, it must be evident through transformation. That is, the power to shape a routine, determine a reflex, form a habit, transform a relationship, mark out a life, a Christian life that is carried through all the way - to the cross. Especially to mark out the life of a bishop (if a bishop is not marked out for Christ, then surely she is of all people to be pitied!) that daily, hourly, I live on my knees, poised with towel, seeking to serve: no matter the context or consequences, the friends or foes, the privileges or pressures, the fulfilment or failure, the impact or ignominy.
"Washing feet was Jesus’ demo on how to exercise power. This act is not a denial of power; quite the opposite."
Washing feet was Jesus’ demo on how to exercise power. This act is not a denial of power; quite the opposite. The washing of feet is followed by a very clear affirmation of power: ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:12-13). Washing feet describes the logic of power, exercised the Jesus way. Not denying it, not ducking it: but acknowledging it and turning it on its head.
I’m still working out what this means in the Kingdom of God. It is not easy to live year round in a world where power is seized and misused, just as much as it is feared and denied. The ICCSA hearings remind us that this is just as much a problem in the church as in the world: perhaps more so, given our claim to follow the Teacher and Lord. Those with the most power are those most prone to kid themselves in their exercise of it. Who is serving who?
As I departed All Saints’ Juniors last week, my bubble was burst. Everyone else was heading home, while one Year 6 boy had been clearing up. Then he came back to find me: ‘Thank you so much, Bishop Jo, for washing my feet. Is there anything else I can help you with?’
No part with me
No part with me
unless I wash you;
no part with me
unless you receive;
no part with me
unless you give freely
for I live in you
and you live in me
By Johnny Precious