Last week I was down in Seal School, as I usually am once a fortnight, leading a school assembly. In our assembly plan we were gradually working through the story of Holy Week, ahead of the end of term service where each year group tells a different part of it. We had got as far as the Last Supper, and I decided to focus on this story we have just heard, the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I reminded the children of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, of the way his disciples and the rest of the crowd expected that he would overthrow the Romans and be a great leader. The disciples were thinking that this would be a great thing, because surely the glory would rub off on them, his right hand men. But Jesus knew it wouldn’t be like that. He was heading for death, and in any case, the kingdom he had been preaching was not about power, but service. But how could he convince his followers of that?
Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles
by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475
So I told the children how Jesus had gathered his disciples on the night before he died, produced water and a towel and washed their feet. I told them how horrified the disciples had been, and how Peter had refused at first, but had been persuaded by Jesus telling him that this was the only way he could be part of Jesus’ work, by learning to serve and to be served. As I told this story, I produced a bowl and a towel myself, and put them on the hall floor and knelt down beside them. The children thought this was all very peculiar, but when I asked “so, who wants to come and have their feet washed,” there was no stopping them. A forest of hands shot up.
I have always found it works like that with children. Adults will try very hard to make their pews swallow them up if you suggest washing their feet, but children, especially small children, don’t bat an eyelid. They are used to their mums and dads washing them; it is a hazard of life as a child that someone is always coming at you with a damp flannel. So I wasn’t surprised to see so many volunteers. I was surprised, though, that some of the Year 6 children, the top class, 10 and 11 year olds, sitting at the back of the hall, had their hands up. Usually they feel far too grown up for this.
Since some of them had had the courage to volunteer, I thought I would honour that by choosing one of them, and called up one of the Year 6 boys. He made his way to the front of the hall quite confidently, but then he looked down at the bowl sitting on the floor. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t know it had actual water in it… I didn’t know you were really going to do it!”
Being a very good sport, he sat down and took off his shoes and socks anyway, but as he put his feet into the water, he said to me “this is sooo embarrassing!” Fortunately he had a smile on his face, so I could see he didn’t really mind, but evidently it was all a bit of a shock. As I washed his feet we talked about why it felt difficult, and why Peter might have felt that he didn’t want his feet washed either, and by the end, we had really got to the heart of this story, really started to understand together why being helped, being served often felt harder than helping and serving yourself.
The depth of reflection we had only happened though, because there was real water, a real towel, real getting wet involved. If you are starting to get worried at this point, please don’t; I’m not going to produce some water here and make you actually go through this… but the insight my volunteer’s reaction prompted is a very important one. “I didn’t think you were actually going to do it…” he said, and it was only when I actually did do it that this ancient story leapt out of the Bible and into real life. Before that it had just been words. The children could appreciate the story from the outside, theoretically, but they didn’t really get it at all, and perhaps neither did I. We alI became aware in a new way as I washed his feet of the courage it took to let someone help you, and the reasons why we are sometimes so bad at doing so.
The trouble with Holy Week, especially if it is something you have observed many, many years running, and even more if you are involved in helping to make it happen – in music, in serving, in welcoming, in leading worship – is that it can end up feeling like so much handle turning.
We go through the motions, hear the words, sing the hymns, turn up in church, and at the end of it we think to ourselves – well, that’s all done and dusted for another year. The Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection …we know how it goes, we know how it will end. It doesn’t really touch us, let alone change us.
But that’s not how it is meant to be. The story of Holy Week only reveals its power when we let it connect with the reality of our lives. Maundy Thursday can only have a real impact if we bring to it not only the words of the ancient story of the Last Supper, but also the struggles we go through in our own lives and communities to live with one another, serve one another, help and accept help. It has to be about real dirt, real vulnerability, the real service that we need to give and receive. Even the ritual of foot-washing, powerful a symbol as it is, can end up being a distraction from that, when it is done with pre-prepared adults presenting the cleanest feet you’ve ever seen to have few drops of water swiftly poured over them, which is why I’ve never pushed the issue of doing it here. What matters is that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty in helping our community in the ways people really need – which is unlikely to be washing their feet - and that we’re not too proud to accept the help of others either.
The events which followed the Last Supper too, which we will retell over these coming days aren’t just an ancient tale full of puzzling theological niceties and mystical mumbo-jumbo. They are about the real experiences of betrayal and courage, pain and love, despair and hope; things which all of us know in our lives, which we see around us in our world today. As we look into the mirror of these old stories, we should be able to see our own situations in a new light, recognise some incident, some problem, some relationship, find ourselves saying “this is about me, now, not just about them, then.”
However beautiful our liturgies, however well done, they are not what it is all about, they are just a way of opening the door to the real encounter each of us needs to have with a real God who longs to do real work in us.
“I didn’t think you were actually going to do it,” said my Year 6 boy. He soon found out he was wrong. As we retell, yet again, these terrible, beautiful, life-changing stories, perhaps we should ask how often we say the same thing to God, how often we come to church expecting nothing to happen. “I didn’t think you were actually going to do it – to challenge me, reveal me to myself, wash me, heal me, transform me. I just came along for the story, or the music, or out of habit, Lord.” My volunteer discovered something about me last week – that I am dangerously likely to do what I say… I pray that we will be open to finding the same about God, to let him into the reality of our lives, so that Holy Week isn’t just an historical re-enactment but a living experience that changes us forever.