Thursday, April 12, 2012

Feet Featured in Easter's Feat

Feet.

Or, as one of my nephews used to say when he was very young:  "foots!"

I'd never noticed it before, but have you ever realized that feet play a role in the Easter story?

My pastor mentioned it this past Resurrection Sunday in his sermon.  And since I'm a member of our Chancel Choir, which sat through all three of our Easter services in their entirety, right behind the pulpit, by noontime, my pastor's point about feet had become etched in my brain.

Which isn't a bad thing.  Repetition is usually the only way I learn.  Well - repetition, and trial-and-error.  Which, combined, helps explain some things about my personality.

Feet first come into the picture on the day before the crucifixion, which we normally celebrate on Maundy Thursday.  Now, immediately, most non-liturgical evangelicals wrinkle up their noses in scorn at the unfamiliar term, "Maundy."  So relax:  it's not all high-and-mighty as you think it sounds.

By popular tradition, scholars usually ascribe the terms "commandment" or "footwashing" to the word "Maundy," after the Latin mandatum, which is the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" (John 13:34)  We know this verse in English as, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

What was the command?  That we, His disciples, love one another as He loved us.  And to initiate that command, Christ washed the feet of His disciples after they came to the upper room for their Passover meal.

Christ.  Washing the feet of his inauspicious group of disciples.  Even knowing one of them would betray Him later that night.  Twelve sets of odoriferous, dusty, dirty, calloused, First Century feet.

Other experts theorize that Maundy comes from French and Latin words for begging, or from the ancient custom of royalty giving alms to the poor during Holy Week.  But it doesn't really matter, since most contemporary Maundy Thursday services these days incorporate neither footwashing or money.  Except maybe references to those heinous 30 pieces of silver.

For example, at my church on Maundy Thursday, we celebrate holy communion after a service of music, liturgy, and a homily (a shorter-than-usual sermon).  The mood is decidedly contemplative, rather than celebratory.  Our service ends with all of the lights being turned off and a lone candle being escorted down the center aisle while a pastor reads a selection of scripture, such as Peter's betrayal of Christ.  We call that part "Tenebrae," after the Latin word for "shadows."  And then we file out of the sanctuary exits in utter silence.

On the first day of the new week, back among the tombs outside Jerusalem, when Mary and the "other" Mary came to where Christ had been buried, they encountered the stone rolled away, and then our risen Christ Himself.  When they recognized Who He was, according to Matthew 28:9, they grabbed His feet and worshipped Him.

And this is the second time feet become incorporated into the Easter story.  In a decidedly more celebratory fashion, right?

Yet in our rush to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, many of us today miss the imagery of the women, crumpled at Christ's feet, in their culture's customary manner of showing devotion, love, and sheer relief.  Isn't it interesting to note that the women don't appear to have spent a lot of time gazing into His face, something you and I would likely have done.  They didn't stand back and survey Christ from top to bottom, marveling that He was all in one piece.  It seems pretty straight-forward:  the women grabbed Christ's feet and worshipped Him from a position of servitude, humility, and - dare I say it? - desperate joy.

We don't really do much of any of that today, do we?  Feet were unpleasant things back during Christ's earthly ministry, and they haven't risen too far on the aesthetic meter during the past two thousand years, have they?  Sure, today, we clover then with comfy socks and expensive shoes, but they still get pretty smelly and dirty despite our comparatively sedentary lifestyles.

No Westerner with any personal dignity falls to the ground and grabs somebody else's feet unless maybe they're trying to throw them off balance, or keep them from fleeing.

And maybe that's what the women were doing - trying to keep Christ from leaving them again.  But is that the tone of their actions being conveyed by the text?  Seeing the raw power Christ has proven by appearing to them in the flesh, after being so brutally and definitively killed before their eyes, the women knew of no other response.  Couldn't theirs have more likely been a reflex to the profound, unprecedented experience of both Christ's proven words and their own lack of faith?  My pastor didn't get this far into his comments about feet, so I'm walking on my own theological tightrope here.  Were the women visiting the tomb out of an abundance of certainty that Christ wouldn't be there?  Perhaps when they saw the empty tomb, then Christ's words that He would rise from the dead began to take on a new reality:  they didn't dare hold out too much hope before, but now, could it really be true?  Then to see Jesus literally in the flesh, alive and whole, healthy and vibrant?

I'd have probably had a short-circuit in my brain.

And I'd like to think that I would have followed the two Mary's and fallen on my knees to grasp Christ's feet in adoration.

But knowing how much a product of my current generation I am, I don't think I'd worship as much as I'd try to minimize my obvious disbelief.  I'd try to cover up my utter surprise, or even worse, pretend that I really trusted all along that Christ would rise from the dead.

But I'd know better.  And even more, Christ would know.

Yet He would love me anyway.

Indeed, He loves me anyway, even today, when I balk at the idea of falling on my knees and kissing anybody's feet.  It's so counter-cultural to the way we Americans have been taught to behave in this world, isn't it?  We're superior.  We're authoritative.  Just by virtue of us being Americans.

Yet we have no virtue in God's eyes, save for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  It's that same sacrifice that will make it possible for me - and all of us who have been saved through it - to one day fall on our knees in Heaven and grab our Savior's feet in adoration.

Christ had no inhibitions about washing His disciples' feet.  And the Biblical account of the Marys at the tomb focuses on His own feet, not His face, or even His hands - another mundane part of our anatomy that we consider more functional than glamorous.

And maybe that's part of Christ's testimony.  Hands and feet.  The parts of our body that get stuff done outside of ourselves.

As I've been writing this essay, I've had a particular Twila Paris song running through my mind.  And maybe you've had it going through yours, too, as you've read this.  So why not play this video and contemplate the hands - and particularly, the feet - of your Savior as we continue walking away from the tomb into the daily ministries to which He's called us.



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