Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
I wonder, as he glanced from left to right, with which disciple he chose to start? John was on one side of his place at the table, which meant that his brother James was likely to be on the other. Yes, it would be James. Perhaps James remembers what John the Baptizer said about this man who is patiently fumbling with the knots, that even John - who Jesus called the greatest man who ever lived - was not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals. And now Jesus is untying his.
It takes what seems like a long time to get those sandals off. Jesus' firm hands pick up each of his disciple's feet and gives them what is as much a massage as a scrub. As he works on his feet, Jesus looks up in the eyes of James with no words but immense compassion that tells all. You, my friend, will be the first of these to follow me to heaven. But when Herod's sword parts your flesh, I will be with you. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Jesus dries his feet with care.
Who is next? Not Peter; he is sitting across from Jesus, where he can speak with him face to face. Another man of ambition, a keener, Simon the Zealot. Simon looks at Jesus and is very perplexed, recognizing and appreciating the radical nature of Jesus' actions - he loves that about him - but struggling to understand what they mean.
To stoop so low... could this man ever be king? What is he waiting for? More than once, a crowd of thousands was ready to crown him, and Jesus walked away from the opportunity. Simon's king works hard at the dirt under his toenails, and the hands of Jesus say, trust me. When I clear all the hatred from your heart, then it will be time to rush out upon the Roman hoards and free them from their gods, their pride, their slavery - and lose your life for my gospel. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Simon has never seen his feet quite so clean before.
Strangely, Matthew reclines beside Simon at the table. Lately they have argued less with one another and struck an odd relationship, in spite of their political differences. Matthew has always been a little self-conscious of his feet; they are very ticklish. Jesus knows this and is not making it easy for him. He squirms, and Jesus' eyes laugh at him. And Matthew loves him. Matthew, more than many, knows and fears Roman cruelty, and he shudders now in fear for the life of this One he loves, and maybe for his own.
Jesus, why are we here in Jerusalem? This is not safe, and I thought that following you would be safe. Jesus concentrates on Matthew's ankles, which are not ticklish, but will one day be scarred by iron bands in a foreign prison. I would not wish those bands away for you, my friend, his hands assure him; they will remove the last of your fears until nothing on earth is of any value to you, only the stuff of heaven. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Matthew notices that the towel is getting damp but it is pleasantly cool.
Nathanael is strongly conflicted as he watches and realizes that Jesus will be at his feet next. Who is this man? Nazarene, or Son of God? Servant or Master? He can never tell what Jesus will do next, or how to think of him. He loves Jesus, no doubt about that, but does he love him as a brother or as Yahweh? He sighs, and Jesus glances up, bemused, keeps him guessing.
Who am I? His eyes laugh and weep at the same time as they ask the question. There is no more important question in all creation, and the answer is like a chest of gold hidden in a field. Seek me, push aside the dirt I am labeled with by mockers, put your back into it as you dig. You will know, Nathanael, as they chase you from house to house, that what you have found is worth leaving all, selling all, putting all your eggs in this one basket. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Give me your other foot.
His friend Philip watches the wordless interaction and guesses at what it might mean. This is a difficult parable indeed, and he hopes for one of those rare explanations from his Rabbi. And he wonders once again why it was that Jesus sought him out that day, among all the young good-for-nothings loitering in town. What an honor, was what his mother said. Now he is not so sure how wise an investment he has made these past three years. What good will come of following such a rabbi as this?
Jesus takes Philip's feet in each hand and simply holds them for a while, appearing to be in prayer, mouthing words Philip can't quite hear, and could not understand anyway. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Honor be hanged, Philip decides. I would rather be loved like this, formed and shaped like this, than follow anyone else. The water in the basin is not the best of color after his friend's washing, and Jesus rises to dump it and pour new from the water jar in the corner. Which is what he is doing with me, Philip's eyes say as they follow Jesus' movements.
Andrew is distracted by his brother Peter's obvious discomfort on the other side of him. Hold still, man. The Teacher is teaching something, and I don't get it either, but have patience! You will knock over the washbasin with your agitation when it is your turn. Now it is mine. I don't always live in your shadow. See how Jesus takes my hard and callused feet, looks at me as if to say, when did you last wash these? I laugh, and the others roll their eyes, but Jesus has no aversion to scrubbing me clean, and I am enjoying every minute.
Jesus, I would follow you anywhere, since that day John the Baptizer declared you to be the Lamb of God. There is nothing I would not do for you, no place I would not go. As if hearing his thoughts, Jesus stops and traces a spot on the top of each of Andrew's feet, and for the smallest moment Andrew feels a spasm of pain, as if his feet are driven to a post. Yes, even there, Jesus, I will follow you. My heart will not be troubled. You have loved me, forever. Jesus smiles and moves on.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” Peter, do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Feed my lambs.
Peter, once again chastened, good-naturedly gets off his feet to recline at the table again, makes the mistake of using Thomas' shoulder as something to lower himself, and finds it stiff as a board. He hastily removes his hand with a murmured apology, and sees that he is not the cause of Thomas' rigidity. Thomas is a private person, and not happy to have anyone - even Jesus - touch his feet.
Suddenly, Thomas plunges his feet into the basin, like a man throwing himself in front of a cart, and splashes both Peter and Jesus. They all laugh, Peter a little wryly, and Thomas relaxes into Jesus' capable hands. You will travel far on these feet, my friend, to a land you have only heard about, a land with more gods than people to worship them. You will be a mere lamp in a world of darkness, darkness that will pierce your heart. But do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. I will go there with you, and I will stay.
James the Smaller, Little James, not a Son of Thunder but more inclined to quiet meditation, is not overlooked by Jesus. The friendship between them is clear, and with him Jesus is gentle but intentional. His eyes hardly leave James' face as he washes his feet, and between the two of them is understanding and purpose. James grows in stature by the very presence of his Master. He feels that he could do anything - and would do anything - for his cause.
I am a bruised reed, and you have not broken me. I am a smoldering wick, but you have never smothered me. I believe in you, Jesus, because you first believed in me, which was the kind of love I needed most. I wish that I could dare ask to wash your feet, as you have mine, but I know my place and cannot match your servitude. So I am left to marvel and admire the aptness of your actions, the poetry of your hands on my feet. My heart is far from troubled, for you have loved me, forever. And so I love you.
I should have sat next to the Zealot, Jude muses. The suspense is killing me. And that water is none too clean... oh, there goes Jesus to refill the basin for the three of us remaining. Figures. What is that smell? My namesake beside me is sweating like a horse, and trembling. He smells like fear, the strange little man. I have never understood him. Ah, the water is cool to the feet, but I'm really wondering what is the point of this. I am glad he is almost done.
Jesus pauses, seeking Jude's attention, finding it for a moment then losing it again. He hums a tuneless melody as he works on his feet, and Jude listens, drawn to the sound. It was not flattery to call you one of my sheep, the melody says. Hear my voice, know my voice, follow no other, seek no other, worship no other. Jude is focused now, as if memorizing Jesus' face, his melody, his presence. I will not always be with you in body. Remember me, Jude. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. Don't forget.
The distress of Judas is increasingly apparent to those near him. This is not merely the stench of an unwashed body, it is terror. He is shaking as Jesus sets the basin in front of him, and Jesus waits, looking perplexed and troubled himself. Then two strange things happen. As he takes Judas' feet in his hands, Jesus begins to weep, silently, but soon it is his shoulders that are shaking, and tears fall into the basin. At the same time, Judas stops trembling and sits up, as cold and hard as stone, fear turning to anger as bitter as myrrh.
All motion in the room stops, as if frozen in time. Jesus lifts his head and gazes into the face of Judas, tears still streaming, the only things still moving. There is such appeal in Jesus' face, a compassionate pleading that nearly rips Judas apart and assaults his resolve. But Judas' face remains frozen, his mind made up, his (stolen) money spent. He pulls his feet from Jesus' grasp and tucks them, still wet, under his cloak. Jesus sighs deeply. I know why your heart is troubled, my friend. I have loved you, forever. I will miss you, always.
I know why you chose to be beside me this evening, John, disciple whom I love. You have given up the notion of being my right-hand man. The water swirls beneath John's feet, and is cleaner than he would have expected. Jesus takes his time. But you cannot bear to not be near me. And so you will find it hardest tomorrow, when you see me suspended between earth and heaven, and watch my life-giving blood flow down for you.
I want you to grow to be an old man, John. Your children will be as many as the stars in the sky, and you will be father to sons and daughters from every nation. You will find that I have never left you, that I am still nearer to you than when you lean back against my breast at the table to ask me some excuse of a question. You have heard me, you have seen me with your eyes, you have looked upon me and touched me with your hands. Many will want to hear of me, again and again, and you will tell them, even long after your days. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you, forever. I am love.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.