Monday, April 10, 2017

A Liturgy on the Washing of Feet

One of the most profound moments during the last week of Jesus Christ’s mortal life was the washing of feet.

Mormons do not observe washing of feet in our regular services, but other Christian churches,
particularly during Holy Week, do indeed practice it as part of the Liturgy.  On Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), some form of washing of feet will be practiced in the Church. Over the past several years, we read of Pope Frances washing the feet of prisoners, children, and refugees, without regard to their faith (most aren’t catholic) or worthiness. 

Where do they get this tradition?  Reading John 13, Jesus washed the disciples feet, and then said to them, “ye ought to wash one another’s feet”.  He told them that this was an example that they were to DO as he had done unto them.

That sounds like a commandment, and if so, where is this commandment practiced in the LDS Church?  We believe, after all, that we are the Restored Church of Jesus Christ, and if something was instituted by Jesus, we ought to practice it.  The answer is a little complicated.

 In setting up the School of the Prophets in Section 88, Joseph Smith revealed:
“And ye shall not receive any among you into this school save he is clean from the blood of this generation; And he shall be received by the ordinance of the washing of feet, for unto this end was the ordinance of the washing of feet instituted. And again, the ordinance of washing feet is to be administered by the president, or presiding elder of the church. It is to be commenced with prayer; and after partaking of bread and wine, he is to gird himself according to the pattern given in the thirteenth chapter of John’s testimony concerning me.” (D&C 88: 138-141)

Note the language: that the washing of feet is to make a person clean from the blood (and sins) of this generation.  As originally revealed, the verse refers only to those who would be admitted into this special school of the prophets.  Later, the Washing of Feet was instituted as part of the Second Anointing, or Second Endowment, only to be performed by and to the very elect in the LDS church, and is virtually inaccessible to members.  In the first endowment, accessible to most any member of the church, the member is washed and anointed that s/he *may become* clean from the blood and sins of this generation.  The Second Anointing makes that promise unconditional.  The elect member is washed clean of the blood and sins of this generation.

Yet is this interpretation by the Church supported by the scripture in John?  I do not believe it is.  A careful analysis of John 13 will show that the meaning Jesus ascribed to the Washing of Feet was almost the opposite of the LDS interpretation. And in that opposite, we can better learn what it means to be a Christ-like leader and servant to others.

The story in John 13 is set in the upper room, during the Last Supper. 
Verse 1: “Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.”

So the first context of this event is that it is about to be Jesus last teaching, and it was entirely about love.  Note that the love is from Jesus to his disciples, not any requirement that the disciples loved him.
Verse 2:  “And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him;”

Why would the writer mention Judas here?  Jesus knows that Judas will betray him – that is apparent later on.  Yet he nonetheless continues – and thus demonstrates the unqualified and unconditional nature of Jesus’ love for ALL his disciples, including Judas.
Verse 3: “3 Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;”

The final element of context is that Jesus is One with God at this point.  He knows it – he is aware of his own status as Son of God and King of Kings.  He is the Lord and Master of all.   And yet he does something shocking:
Verses 4-5: “[Jesus rose] from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”

To unpack what is going on here, to lay aside one’s garments and put on a towel is to dress in the clothing of a slave.  Then, he performed an act that only the very lowest of slaves would do.

Footwashing was a common practice in these times.  A gracious host would offer a basin and a towel to a guest, so that he could wash the literal excrement gathered from the filthy streets where animals and often humans relieved themselves.  Typically, the guest would wash his own feet – touching someone else’s feet is very degrading.  Yet in some circles, the lowest of slaves might be called in to wash the guest’s feet. 

Peter immediately reacts to this:
Verse 6, 8: Peter saith unto Jesus: “Lord dost thou wash my feet?  Thou shalt never wash my feet.” 

Why did Peter react this way?  Because it was completely demeaning: The Master doesn’t wash the disciple’s feet, and the Master is by no means a lowly slave.  As well, the Master is pure, “unspotted from the world.”, yet in this very act, Jesus is dirtying himself with the vilest of excrement.

Jesus kindly chides him:
Versus 7,8: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.”

Peter, enthusiastic as ever, then says, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and head.” (verse 9)

Jesus replied, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” (verse 10), the final phrase being explained in verse 11, “or he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.”

If we stop at this point, we might come to the same conclusion Joseph Smith did in Doctrine and Covenants section 88, that the washing of feet is to make a person clean from the blood of this generation.

But John’s record did not stop at an oblque comment about being clean. Instead of speculating on what Jesus meant, we can read exactly what he meant:
Verse 12 ” So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?”

Jesus was teaching. The great Master has finished the example, put his clothes back on, and now is seated. In Jewish custom, one stands to read from the Torah, and then sits down to make a comment on it. We need to embrace the didactic moment here – this wasn’t meant to be an ordinance, but rather, an example – and he so states explicitly:
Verses 13-15: “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”

This is meant to be an example – not an ordinance. It is to be a pattern that the disciples should *do* as Jesus had done to them.  And what were they to *do*?  Wash feet?  No.
Verses 16-17: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”

No, Jesus was not talking about instituting a new ordinance, to institute an exclusive ordinance only to be done in temples to the very elite.  He was talking about inspired leadership – the kind of service that does not put oneself above, or “greater than” those s/he serves.

Everything Jesus taught about discipleship was to humble ourselves in service to others.  And to whom were we to serve?  Everyone, including and especially, those who don’t deserve it.

The idea that the highest leaders of the Church are intended to be separated and exalted, cleansed from the blood and sins of this generation, is precisely the opposite of what Jesus taught with the Washing of Feet.  To suggest that leaders are separate means that they don’t get their hands dirty with the messiness of life. 

Our church is full of ways that we can be separate.  We wear uniforms of the priesthood, and garments to protect us from the sinful world.  We worship in chapels dedicated to our worship and instructional purposes, yet are distinctly forbidden to be used to help the homeless, conduct non-ARP AA meetings, or assist with community affairs.  Our temples are sanctuaries where only the “worthy” can attend, and there, unspotted from the world, the worthy elect can bask in the purity of whiteness and luxury befitting the King of Kings.  Our semi-annual conferences give us the opportunity to see our leaders bask in the brilliance of simulated sunlight, seated upon red thrones in a glorious, great, and spacious conference center.  They are washed, anointed, clothed in finest suits and professional attire, separated and elevated from the audience. 

Jesus would have none of this.  Instead, his teaching -- his archetype was that of a slave, engaging in the dirtiest of duties to those he served.  Instead of being cleansed from the blood and sins of the generation, the Christ like servant-leader was to be engaged in the reality of those served. 

We are all sinners.  Within our lives, we have those aspects of our character that bring guilt and shame to our lives.  We cannot but step in the filth on the Roads of life, for in this world, we are to learn through our own experience to distinguish good from evil – and that often means, stepping in things we would prefer not to. 

Jesus invitation is to become engaged and serve all.  Jesus invitation is to be engaged, not to partake of the dirt of life, but to deal with it, to remove the stain of shame from those who walk on the Way, and give them Rest.  Jesus invitation is articulated in the preamble of the Washing of Feet: 
  1.  We are to love one another as Jesus loved us.  When Jesus was aware that he was about to depart this life, his love for us was first and foremost on his mind.
  2. Our love is not constrained by the worthiness of the beloved.  Jesus invites us to love unconditionally as he unconditionally loves us, as symbolized in the willingness to serve even the one who would betray him.  This puts reality to Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, so that we can be children of God, “perfect” (teleios –whole, complete, impartial, unconditionally loving) as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
  3. To love and lead others is to be their servant.  Love is not reflected in separation from and exaltation over others, but rather, to abase oneself in humble service.

In sum, Jesus is not asking us to go out and do literal Washing of Feet. He is not instituting an ordinance for the worthy and elect.  He is showing us by example how to love others. And not only that, as part of his Atonement, he is showing us its core meaning – to be one with another in love.

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