holy week 2023: maundy thursday


Note: this is the first Holy Week retreat talk given by The Rev. Alice Cabotaje Roshi.

Reading: John 13:12-17 (New International Version)

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

(Gassho) Good evening. Welcome and thank you for taking time from your routine to pause, to retreat, to be in silence, to practice meditation, to be in contemplation from tonight until Sunday noon.

As we step into our Holy Week Retreat, and enter into Silence, a Silence that is vast, empty and yet overflowing with Love, Mercy, and Grace, let us journey with Jesus the Christ as he embodies and models for us how to live our lives; how to discern what is most essential; how to discern what matters most.

In our society, we are aware that we are often measured and valued according to our wealth, degrees, titles. Fortunately, this is not how we are measured in God’s eyes and valued by those who know and love us dearly. Instead, we are embraced in all that we are, this unique, special, one-of-a kind being that has emerged only once at this point within infinity. Imagine that!

On one hand, this can fan pride in some of us and on the other hand, this can make us humble. Unfortunately, especially within the context of measuring value according to economic terms, to be regarded as ‘humble’ most often means that one is simple, or of little worth.

Before we explore what is humble, what is humility, it would be helpful to look into modesty, which is sometimes mistaken for humility.

‘Modesty’ is from the Latin ‘modus’, ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. ‘Humility’, like ‘humiliation’, is from the Latin ‘humus’, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Modesty means restraint in appearance and behavior: the reluctance to flaunt oneself, to put oneself on display, or to attract attention. It often implies a certain artfulness and artificiality, that would be inauthentic.

Irish writer C.S. Lewis defines Humility as not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

To be humble is to let go of our ego so that things are no longer all about us; while to be modest is to protect the ego of others so that they do not feel uncomfortable, threatened, or small, and attack us in turn.

In our scripture reading of John 13: 12-17, Jesus pushes humility even further into a radical form of humility. I say radical because his washing of his disciples’ feet shows a humility that also includes love, devotion, and service to them.

If we look at the previous verses of the chapter, Jesus gets up from supper, lays aside his garments, takes a towel and girds it onto himself.   Then he pours water into the basin, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”14 Note that in John 13:4, the meal is already underway when Jesus begins washing the disciples’ feet. This may strike you as odd. And true, it is odd.  

The reason is foot washing was normally done before the mealwhen guests entered a home.15 Foot washing was needed in every home in Palestine. The streets were dusty and strewn with garbage, dung and people typically wore open-toed sandals. You can picture their feet as very dirty, sweaty, and smelly. So during those days, you had to wash your feet!

Typically, guests normally washed their own feet after the host offers a basin of water. They kneel down, take off their sandals, wash their feet, and then dry them with a towel. If a host had servants, the servants would wash the feet of guests. And that was a big deal during those times to be treated with luxury. But under no circumstances would the host wash the feet of his guests. The master would never stoop so low as to wash the feet of those beneath him. Guests washed their own feet. Slaves washed feet. Masters never did.

So why is Jesus, the Master, washing His disciples’ feet? Why hadn’t the disciples washed each other’s feet? Why hadn’t someone washed Jesus’ feet? After all, this was the evening before his crucifixion. If there was any night the disciples should have served Jesus, it was during the Last Supper. Why did they start the meal with dirty feet?

We may get a greater clue from Luke 22:24 where on the way to the Last Supper, a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. It is possible that when they entered the Upper Room, there was no slave the feet of the guests. The disciples probably took turns when there was no slave, but during this time none was willing to lower himself to do the menial task…none was willing to be servant of all. It also is surprising that after three years with Jesus, the disciples would be willing to serve Him. But that was not the case.

And from reading the gospels one surmise that Jesus thinks and plans ahead. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus arranging things in advance (e.g., buying the donkey and its colt, having a place in which to celebrate Passover). It is hard to imagine that Jesus would forget to provide for the foot washing. Also, all the things that were needed for the foot washing were present —  the basin, the water, the towel.

The lack of a servant to wash the disciples’ feet\ may have been intentional. It was the host’s responsibility to provide this (see Luke 7), and Jesus was the host. It is likely that Jesus purposefully arranged for a servant not to be present, so that He could wash the disciples’ feet, knowing (as He did) all that would take place during this meal. Jesus was and is the archetypal servant.

In John 13:6-11, Peter is nervous about Jesus washing his feet.  “So He [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to Him, ‘Lord, do You wash my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter’.” Although Peter can be slow of mind and heart, he finally recognizes that his Lord and Teacher should not be washing his feet.

And Jesus explains that this act will make sense “hereafter.” Jesus is referring to the explanation that he will share with His disciples in John 13:12-17.

And it reads: After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly I tell you servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things you are blessed if you do them.

A question remains: Will Peter truly understand the purpose and intent of Jesus’ words? The answer is: Yes. After Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Peter understood fully. It is worth noting that Peter appears to have had this episode in mind when he said in 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”20 The verb translated “clothe yourself”21 is reminiscent of Jesus putting on the garb of a slave. Eventually Peter did indeed catch the point of the example Jesus set.

As we continue to be in silence, practice meditation, be in contemplation, may we realize what it means to lead by serving, and what it means to be truly humble, which includes serving in the spirit of love and compassion towards others, because the other is no other than us. And in its most essential, there is no Self that serves and no Self that is being served.