Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world. Another way of translating the Bible into English says that Jesus “showed the full extent of his love”; yet another, that he loved his disciples “to the very end”.
There are times in life when we have to say “Goodbye”.
When we recognise that an ending is approaching, we pay more attention, and some of the rules which otherwise apply can be set aside. Friends spending a day together might hug at the end, though they would not dream of cuddling otherwise. A fond farewell can be a precious memory which lasts a lifetime; an awkward farewell can sour the memory of a good relationship.
A time of parting is a moment when it becomes appropriate to let down our guard, to express love in a deeper way then we do in our ongoing relationships. I have always cherished the memory of a day after my final exams as an undergraduate, when I took a walk in the park with a close friend and we found ourselves holding hands. She was never my girlfriend, but because it was a parting, there was something beautiful, appropriate, and unforgettable about this moment of closeness before we went our separate ways.
Jesus is about to leave his chosen Disciples, and chooses to leave them with something to remember. Three of the Gospel writers explain how Jesus took the familiar passover ritual but gave it an unexpected twist – henceforth the unleavened bread would be his own Body, and the cup of wine, his Blood. Tonight, St John focuses on the humble action of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the same way that a household slave would have done. We might hear echoes of this in current political commentary about whether NHS nurses are keen to provide basic washing, feeding and toileting for less able patients. In one action, Jesus teaches us something about humility and something about service.
I wonder what the lesson might be for you?
In your life, is there someone who needs you, but whom you have been avoiding, for fear of what they might ask?
In your life, is there someone whose presence you take for granted, but who might really appreciate an affectionate word or gesture?
In your life, are there duties of care which have become routine or burdensome, which need to be approached with a renewed decision to make present the love of God?
I know that sometimes churches use this Maundy Thursday service as an opportunity to invite all the parishioners to take part in some symbolic action of mutual service. I’m not going to do that here and now, because the “director’s instructions” in the Missal ask us to use this special time in the year to re-enact what Jesus did at the Last Supper – washing the feet of the men he had chosen to be his leading disciples. Part of the power of the symbol is that it is a man serving men – one woman tending to another’s body would not be such an unusual sight.
Liturgy is normally about taking part, but this one action is different. For most of us, we will be spectators, not participants. This is deliberate – because you are invited to watch and remember. Watch, and try to understand what message Jesus is giving us. Watch this action as if it were a visit to your best friend, dying of cancer, or the last glimpse of your sister on the day before emigrating to Australia. Watch this action as if it were the last request of a condemned man who is to be executed in the morning – for this is exactly what it is.
Remember, says Jesus. Remember to be humble. Remember to serve one another’s needs. And remember that tonight I am to give my very body to be broken for the sins of the world. FIRST understand – then go out from this place and imitate this in your life.