At the Last Supper Jesus is a dead man. His betrayer is at hand, the trap set for him is about to be sprung. The words and actions of a dying man have a peculiar intensity and meaning. Usually, the dying begin a process of taking leave before the moment of their death. Slowly but surely they start to slip away from us, they begin a process of detachment in preparation for that last journey which we must all make alone.
On the night of his agony Jesus is not detached; he is intensely present. It is rather his disciples who are absent, not there. They cannot fathom what he is doing: he slowly and deliberately washes their feet. Peter is puzzled; he asks Jesus to wash all of him, not just to stop at his feet. So, why was Jesus so particularly careful to wash the feet of his disciples?
There are plenty of poems and songs about eyes, hair, lips and other parts of the anatomy in our romantic literature, but not many about feet. Some years ago, I saw a film about a man who had fallen for a young girl. He managed to get possession of a piece of her hair ribbon and wore it over his heart as a kind of love token. I doubt if he would have done the same with an old sock or a stocking. Feet do not really feature in this highly symbolic language at all, and yet for Jesus this action is highly symbolic.
When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples he acts out a kind of prophetic sign or sacrament of his whole life and mission. It is a sacrament in that God shows what he does and does what he shows us. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God. On the night he was betrayed, he tells his disciples that he has come to lay down his life. He invites his disciples to follow him in that way of sacrifice, showing that he who loses his life will save it; the ultimate Christian paradox.
The washing of the feet is often seen as a rite of preparation. By it the disciples are prepared to eat at the table of the Lord. Through it the disciples are received by Christ into an intimacy of communion with him that is expressed fully in the Eucharist. Normally feet were washed by servants in the time of Jesus, but there was one exception to this rule, a wife could wash her husband's feet. A rabbi would not let his disciples wash his feet, but he would let his wife, not because she was a servant, but because they were one body. There is a story dating from this time about a Jewish couple called Joseph and Asenath. Asenath is Joseph's bride and she will not let anyone else touch his feet, she says to him: 'Your hands are my hands and your feet are my feet and I will wash them, and no one else will touch them.' Throughout the Middle East the washing of the feet is part of betrothal and marriage ceremonies. At the Last Supper, Jesus, washes the feet of his bride the Church symbolized by the disciples.
The washing of the feet is not primarily about service, self-giving love which expresses the unity of communion. In the Eucharist our being 'one body with Christ' is enacted in a sacramental drama. As St Augustine says: 'I am your food, but instead of my being transformed into you, it is you who shall be transformed into me.' In the Eucharist Christ gives us himself not as an object but as a gift that transforms. In the Eucharist Christ gathers his own to himself. The Good Shepherd gathers his sheep into the sheepfold of communion. When St John describes Jesus 'laying aside' or 'laying down his garments' before washing his disciples feet he uses the same word he has used earlier to describe the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. At the Last Supper the Good Shepherd leads his sheep to the pasture of the Cross.
The Eucharist is the start and finish of our journey. It is the place to which we draw people and the centre from which we are sent out to bring Christ to the world. The call to the Eucharist, the call to mission is the call to getting your feet dirty. We should not be afraid of getting our feet dirty then, we are soiling them for Christ. There is no other way of preaching the Gospel to the multitudes than by passing through the dust and mess of the world in which they are; you cannot love and keep your feet clean. You cannot love and save your life. Sacrifice and fruitfulness are bound up together; they cannot be separated at any stage.
The washing of the feet is not the prelude to the Eucharist, it is the Eucharist. 'The seed does not die and then produce fruit; it is in the dying that it gives life. It is one and the same process that is both death and fruitful growth.' Those who lose their lives will save them for eternal life.