Maundy Thursday offers a bookend of touch to Ash Wednesday: a touch on the forehead with ashes juxtaposed with the touch of hands, soap, and water on feet. These are fleeting moments of tenderness, thin spaces of vulnerability, connection. Foreheads and feet are places that are often only touched by loved ones, or maybe doctors. There is a certain intimacy about both our foreheads and our feet: the kiss of a parent on their child’s forehead, and the tenderness of one’s arch regardless of how calloused their feet may be.
These bookends of touch signify that vulnerability is an integral part of following Jesus.
Merriam-Webster defines vulnerable as: easily hurt or harmed; open to attack, harm, or damage.
This definition is true, but I don’t believe this definition is sufficient.This makes vulnerability sound only like a negative trait, a posture to avoid. In her book Daring Greatly, author Brené Brown is more nuanced, defining vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.’
I think that more aptly defines the posture that Jesus takes when he washes the feet of the disciples.
The gospel passage for Maundy Thursday is from John 13, but the lectionary calls for us to skip verses 18-30, the verses in which Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the Pharisees. The lectionary instead appoints these verse to be read as the gospel on Holy Wednesday. It would be easy to think that the betrayal comes before the foot washing. It’s almost as if we want Judas to be left out. He shouldn’t be included with those who have their feet washed. But the betrayal comes after the foot washing. Judas is included in those whom Jesus loved ‘to the utmost.’ In fact, Peter denies Jesus just the next day, and John is the only disciple to take the journey all the way to the foot of the cross.
Brené Brown goes on to apply her definition of vulnerability to love, ‘Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed.’
Jesus teaches us to love one another after Judas departs. He teaches us to love not only the people we depend upon and the people who depend upon us, but even more so, those whom we might prefer to forget. God commands us to wrap a towel around our waist, get on our knees, and reach into the waters of vulnerability.
This sort of tenderness and intimacy through vulnerability allows us to come alive, to be fully human. It allows us to see the full image of God in our neighbor, and it allows us to fully live into that image of God as well. The truth is that we admire vulnerability in other people, but we are hesitant with vulnerability for ourselves (Most people are, after all, pretty anxious about having their feet washed!). We are afraid to allow others to see our own vulnerability, to see who we are at our core.
Culture and society often tell us that we have to put on a mask, a front, that communicates success and perfection, that we have it all together, but in truth our lives are messy and complex. And that’s okay. Jesus wants us to share in one another’s messy lives.
There are just a few times in which Jesus says, ‘Do this…’They are: Baptism, the Eucharist, and washing feet. Each of these three are in different ways about communion, being bound together. God commands us to lean into one another, to embrace one another’s messy lives, to carry one another’s burdens, and to love with risk and an open heart.
One of my favorite musicians, Jon Foreman, once said in an interview, speaking about his purpose and overall journey, ‘I think the point is ultimately not about me. And if you approach the world with the apron of a servant, then you are allowed to go places that you can’t go if you approach it with the crown of a king.’
Liturgy can be powerfully transformative because in the doing, we enact and shape our believing. Further, we are able to practice in worship how we are to live outside the walls of the church.
The washing of feet is a simple and yet appropriately intimate entry point for a conversation with young people (and old folks alike!) about vulnerability, tenderness, and servanthood. Here are questions to ponder aloud on your way home from church tonight.
What are different ways we can show love and care for other people?
How have people shown love and care for you?
What does love have to do with serving others?
When might vulnerability look like strength?
How does it make you feel when others serve you?
What are ways we can respond to that feeling?
What are other actions that can be like washing feet?
What are other questions you might explore with your family and kiddos?
The Lord Jesus, after he had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, ‘Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.”
I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.’
[Image Credit: ‘Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Amsterdam, c. 1640 – c. 1650′, in J. Turner (ed.), Drawings by Rembrandt and his School in the Rijksmuseum, online coll. cat. Amsterdam 2017.]