“I had been lying in the hospital bed for far too long. I felt horrible, sticky, smelly, unwashed, unloved. And then one of the nurses (it was in the days when nurses were not as overworked as they are now) came and offered me a bath. I thought, ‘finally my dignity is completely gone’. But it was the most wonderful feeling. I didn’t leave the bed, but she quietly, gently and thoroughly washed me, head to toes. When she had finished, I felt ten years younger, and like I was the most special person in the world.”
“In my first year of being a priest, I was dreading the Maundy Thursday service. Although I knew that the congregation all wash their feet really well before they set off for the service, I just didn’t want to touch someone else’s foot. Feet are dirty, smelly, and basically private things – useful but not attractive. But in that moment in the service, I found that the 24 feet in front of me were somehow transformed into the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and in that moment I thought I knew what it must be like to look upon human imperfection with the eyes of God.”
In Sieger Koder’s beautiful painting of Christ washing Peter’s feet, we can see Peter’s hesitation in his left hand, even as he embraces Christ with his right. We recognise his reluctance because we have felt it ourselves, at one time or another. We resist being served, possibly even more than we resist serving others.
Why? Because so many of us assimilate and perpetuate a culture of independence that is deeply destructive of the human soul, and runs counter to all that God hoped for when he created us.
The bible may teach us that it is better to give than to receive, but in this story, we are taught that the economy of love is about interdependence: a network of giving and receiving, of serving and being served. If that were easy to grasp, Jesus would not have had to teach it to his friends so painstakingly.
In the painting we see the face of Christ only as it is reflected in the foot-dirty water. We are drawn to it, asking ourselves where it is and in what circumstances we can most clearly see the face of Christ. We are then further drawn to ask ourselves what happens to our own reflection when we engage in those situations and with those people. We might even look down at our own reflection and see the face of Christ looking back at us.