On the island of Sicily, there is a city called Monreale, which boasts one of the most beautiful cathedrals in all the world. It was built beginning in 1174 and was dedicated as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Pope Lucius III in 1182. What sets the Cathedral at Monreale apart are its absolutely stunning glass mosaics that cover 6,500 square meters of wall space – that’s almost 70,000 square feet of tiny glass tiles telling the story of Christian history. This morning, my friend Nurya posted a photo of the cathedral’s Mandatum mosaic, and I completely fell in love. The cathedral at Monreale is officially on my bucket list.
The scene, set against a striking gold background, shows the disciples gathered around Jesus who is stooped low, washing the feet of Peter. They are all looking at Jesus somewhat askance. Through sideways glances, some look confused and a few look sad, but it is Peter who tells the full story. As Jesus is wiping his foot with a towel, Peter is scratching his head as if to say, “This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
I think Peter is showing outwardly and visibly what most of us feel inwardly in our souls each Maundy Thursday. Of all the things we do in the Church: processions, vestments, and bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood; of all the fantastic stories we tell of 40 day floods, oil jars that never fail, even Jesus being resurrected from the dead; the events of Thursday in Holy Week are probably the most mind boggling.
Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God who came to save the world and restore the throne of David met his disciples for supper on the Eve of the Feast of the Passover. Instead of whipping them into shape for an assault on their Roman occupiers, as most of them hoped and expected him to do, Jesus hunched over, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and began to wipe the dirt from their feet in an act of humble service. This was wholly unacceptable behavior for a man of Jesus’ stature. Slaves washed the feet of men higher than themselves. Students washed the feet of their Rabbis. Rabbis didn’t wash their disciples’ feet. Kings didn’t stoop down for anyone, but Jesus did, and Peter and the rest of the disciples didn’t know what to do with that. As the strange scene came to an end, Jesus put his coat back on, returned to the table, and began to teach them that this sort of mind-boggling behavior was what it meant to be his disciple. “I have set for you an example,” Jesus said, “You should wash one another’s feet. You should love one another as I have loved you. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
The sort of people who show up for church at 6pm on Maundy Thursday know these things. You’ve taken time out of your busy lives to come and hear some of the craziest stories in all of Scripture. You’ve learned to eat the Passover feast standing up, ready to run at a moment’s notice. You’ve heard the retelling of Jesus’ Last Supper in which he took bread and called it his body and took wine and called it his blood. You’ve no doubt scratched your head a time or two in wonder and awe at Jesus’ humility in washing the feet of his disciples. You’re here because you know the power of the love of God in your life, but Jesus says there is a next step. You’ll be blessed by doing.
You’ll be blessed by following the example of Jesus and washing someone else’s feet. You’ll be blessed by following Peter’s example and, even though it might seem weird and uncomfortable, allowing someone else to wash your feet. You’ll be blessed by dedicating your life to humble service of the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the oppressed, and those in prison. You’ll be blessed by learning to love thy neighbor no matter their color, their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation – no matter what. You’ll be blessed by living a life worthy of the Gospel even when it means holding an unpopular belief in hope in a world that seems hell bent on instilling fear and mistrust. Peter will tell you first hand that blessings come in mysterious ways, but the best blessings come from following the example that Jesus Christ set for us: a life of loving and sacrificial service to the honor and glory of God. In the end, foot washing is a choice. You don’t have to do it. You can blessed by doing any number of other things in the name of Christ. But on Maundy Thursday, foot washing serves as a reminder of the depth of God’s love for this world: a love so devoted that a King took off his robe, crouched down, and washed the feet of his friends.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for you: give us the will to be the servant of others as you were the servant of all, and gave up your life and died for us, but are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen.