Thursday, April 9, 2009

Knowing he is God, he stripped down and washed their feet

Tonight is Maundy Thursday -- Maundy coming from "Mandatum," for Jesus commands tonight in the Gospel reading: 

Si ergo ego lavi pedes vestros, Dominus et Magister: et vos debetis alter alterius lavare pedes.  Exemplum enim dedi vobis, ut, quemadmodum ego feci vobis, ita et voc faciatis (John 13).
"If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also."  What struck me from tonight's Gospel reading, though, was not so much the familiar command, but John's introduction:

Before the festival day of the Pasch, Jesus, knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end.  And when supper was done (the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him), knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands and that he came from God and was going to God: he rose from supper and laid aside his garments and, having taken a towel, girded himself.
I have to quote the whole introduction to the chapter to get the grand effect.  John reiterates Jesus' unbearable foreknowledge, his sense of purpose and intense love and fully willful, unconstrained and unforced self-sacrifice, and then -- Jesus strips down and puts on a towel.  It's a strange letdown: the language sets you up for a grand, heroic gesture -- perhaps a second, more impressive ritual to follow the first Eucharist, or a revelation of a great new teaching -- and then Jesus does something completely humiliating and weird, something that not even a slave would be asked to do.

In some sense, this act encapsulates the Incarnation:  it's a completely weird thing that such a grand and infinite God could want to be so close to Creation as to become part of it.  Earlier today I saw an article discussing the symbolism of the four-petal jasmine flower that appears on the image of the Lady of Guadalupe.  For the Aztecs of the time, the flower represented the four directions of the universe -- and thus, universal authority, along the same pattern as the circle-cross or spherical scepter topped with a cross.  It symbolized Ometeotl, the Twofold God, "Owner of the Near and Far," "Lord of heaven and earth," "Creator of people," "Inventor of Himself" -- an abstract god without a cult of worship or a temple, a god too grand, high, and remote to have an interest in human affairs.  And yet -- the Fourfold Flower appears engraven on the womb of the Mother of God.  The Lady comes bearing God, the same God that was or that seemed completely inaccessible, yet here appears tiny and weak and helpless, wrapped in swaddling clothes or a towel or a burial cloth.