Thursday, April 9, 2009
1 Corinthians 11:20-32 / John 13:1-15
If I do not wash you, you shall have no part with me.
We have all seen him, the little boy who struggles and strains against his mother's daring attempt to straighten out an unruly lock of hair on his head, to adjust a tie a little too askew, to wipe with a bit of spit and a handkerchief the spot of jelly stubbornly clinging to his face. He protests. He pouts. He squirms. He may even, if his temper is foul enough, or if the Evil One has inclined him to rebel against the fourth commandment even at his tender age, speak in ill and unkind ways to the woman who bore him. Like most mothers, she will know how to bear this unkindness with grace, but it is unkindness all the same.
Psychologically speaking, we can understand the child's behavior. In a way, it is not unlike the sullen, cold wars declared between teenaged daughters and their mothers or the testing of limits of fathers by their teenaged sons. It is the desire of a child to be his own person, to move from being simply an appendage of his family and of its dominant figures to being an agent in his own right, and actor, someone with thoughts, hopes and dreams of his own. It can be, when experienced without malice, an important part of the path to maturity, to a rich and full adult life. Indeed, on the other side of it all, it might yield a happier relationship between the parents and their now wiser, independent, and thus more authentically loving adult children.
Yet, quite often things do not turn out this way. The healthy manifestation of the self can be all to easily linked with a perverse, even unholy assertion of radical autonomy. We can come to resent any kindness done on our behalf. Even people otherwise generous themselves, willing to come to the aid of others, indeed sometimes especially those people whose lives are dedicated to meeting others' needs — doctors, priests, parents — find it more than a little difficult to receive the ministrations of others. Perhaps they have come to see their worth in the good they do for others, and the fact of receiving help worries them that they are no longer of value, no longer the self-sufficient source of largesse. Perhaps they convince themselves that they have no needs, no demands, no claims on the time and lives of others, that they can pass through life leaving it virtually untouched, unwounded by their wants and desires. Perhaps they just do not want to be infantilized.
Whatever the worry, to refuse to acknowledge to good we need and long for, to refuse to admit that we cannot attain it on our own, to refuse to receive it from the one hand willing to offer it — in short, to refuse to have the Lord wash our feet is to refuse communion with the Lord. To have a part with the Lord Jesus Christ means precisely to love him, to see him as the source of our joy and our life, and thus to take him not as we would have him be, but as he has graciously chosen to be for us. Jesus has come to be the our Lord and Master to be sure, but a Lord and Master who washes our feet. He has come to be our life, indeed, but our life under the appearances of bread broken and wine poured out, at the hands of men altogether unworthy of the task, but men who have been bathed in the sacramental grace of Order, even if they need some washing.
The priesthood and the Eucharist — these are the ways Jesus has chosen to minister his saving life to us. We can demand if we will that he do it another way, and then have no part with him. Or, we can swallow our pride, send the unruly child in our soul away, the child that wants things his way with no help from anyone, and embrace with love the simple, seemingly feeble, yet incomparably glorious gifts of the Lord's ministry to us.