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Love revealed in a bowl of dirty water

Arguments for Easter Dr Margaret Atkins, of Trinity and All Saints' College, Leeds, continues our meditations on the significance of Holy Week by examining the foot-washing ceremony traditional today.
Our earliest eye-witness account of the celebration of Holy Week comes from the pen of a pilgrim called Egeria. She had travelled to the Holy Land from distant Spain. The report she sent home evokes her powerful sense of being in the "holy places". The community is re-enacting the last days of Christ's life there, where they actually happened:

When everyone arrives at Gethsemane, they have an appropriate prayer, a hymn, and then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord's arrest. By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loudly that people even across in the city can probably hear it all.

We cannot all celebrate Holy Week in Jerusalem. However, the unfolding drama of the Easter liturgy allows us to share in a vivid act of communal remembering. The procession on Palm Sunday, the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday - traditional ceremonies such as these invite us to reflect on the original events by becoming ourselves a part of the narrative.

For many centuries, Maundy Thursday has been celebrated also by re-enacting the scene where Christ washes his disciples' feet. Traditionally the rite has been accompanied by the antiphon Ubi caritas: "Where charity and love are found, there is God." The English word "Maundy" recalls St John's interpretation of this action as an expression of love. It comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning "commandment", and refers to Jesus' words: "I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you."

Familiarity can breed inattentiveness. Too easily we take it for granted that the central message of Christianity is love. It is difficult to feel afresh the shock of St John's story. (Peter felt this, of course, and expressed it with his usual hasty bluntness: "You shall never wash my feet!") St John's narrative begins with a sentence startling in its incongruity:

Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself (John xiii, 2-3).

The incongruity is heightened by St John's own portrait of Jesus. Of the four Gospels, it is his that consistently dwells on the glory of the Son of God made man. The Gospel is punctuated by the majestic phrases with which Christ identifies himself: "I am the Bread of Life"; "I am the True Vine"; "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life". Yet here, and only here, does the Son of God pick up a towel and dirty his hands in the menial task of washing feet.

St John does not tell a story for the sake of it. When he relates a miracle, he calls it a sign; and he selects his signs for their symbolic importance. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper straightforwardly. John refers to it obliquely in his discourse on the bread of life, which follows the feeding of the five thousand. The "miracle-story" is narrated because of what it tells us about the identity of Christ.

The same is true of the washing of feet. At one level we are offered an example to imitate: "If I, then, the Lord and the Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet." But this is not just a moral tale. It needs to be connected with Christ's mission as a whole. St John's narrative is interwoven here with reminders of Jesus' immediate destiny: Judas' betrayal, Peter's denial, the "hour" that had come for Jesus to depart. The next act in the drama will be that arrest over which Egeria's congregation will one day weep. For Christ's life as a whole has "the form of a servant . . . obedient unto death" (Philippians ii, 7-8). That is the shape that his glory takes.

God chose to reveal Himself through a human life. Therefore the love that is at the heart of God becomes a story. Within the life of God, unconditional self- giving is inseparably united to glory. When they are projected on to the screen of human life, they form a narrative: the self-emptying of the Incarnation; the self-surrender of the Passion, and then the final triumph of the Resurrection.

The Easter liturgy as it slowly unfolds allows us to retell the drama in contemplation. As we relive each year the details of Christ's life, we are offered a space to attend to their significance: to ponder the theological truths concealed in a bowl of dirty water.