Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Return of the Live Nativity

The animals were back, after last year’s absence, at our church’s live nativity this Christmas Eve.  Joining us again were a burro, a small ox, a sheep, a goat, and, of course, a camel.  Because of ongoing covid precautions, no human actors were featured in the tableau. . .

. . .except for camel’s handler.  Delilah was the camel on duty this year; her colleague Samson was engaged elsewhere.  She was as friendly and patient as we’ve come to expect her to be.  

Kiko enjoys the live nativity primarily for the multiplicity of smells it affords. The animals responsible for them are of less interest. Our dog rarely looks up, and the camel’s great height puts her well out of Kiko’s radar. He seems oblivious to her presence.

Delilah isn’t especially curious about Kiko, either, but she never seems to tire of posing for photos with a parade of curious onlookers. If encouraged, she offers a welcoming nuzzle.

The furry little donkey has a cuteness quotient that rivals any dog’s.

Evidently the group had a busy holiday schedule. The sheep was drowsy, and the goat was sleeping soundly, until Kiko got close and woke him. The goat was startled, and Kiko was even more so.

One family brought along their big white bunny, whom they eagerly introduced to Kiko. The rabbit didn’t appear enthusiastic about the meeting; his air was more akin to that of a sacrificial victim. Our dog had never seen a bunny before, and he wasn’t sure what to make of this new creature. Should he consider it an equal, as he does the sheep, goat and donkey? Or is it more like a squirrel, something to be pursued? After several encounters, he seemed possibly inclined to think it was the latter. At that point, we made sure he kept some distance from the bunny, who was, no doubt, relieved.

Delilah opens her mouth for a big yawn. Her shift is coming to a close; it’s nearly time to get back into the trailer for the next gig. She wishes everyone a lovely Christmas Eve and a merry Christmas!

On Winter Solstice, A Need for Christmas light

This shortest day of the year has been gray and bitterly cold here in the suburbs of our nation’s capital. I spent a good part of the afternoon out with my elderly dog, making halting progress around the perimeter of a grocery store parking lot.  One of the abiding pleasures of Kiko’s old age is a ride and a walk, followed by a snooze in the car while I shop.  Having underestimated the chilling effect of the breeze, and not expecting to be out for very long, I was inadequately dressed.  Every leaf and every square inch of sidewalk seemed to be calling out to my dog’s discerning nose.  He sniffed, and sniffed, and continued to sniff some more.  Yet there was no resolution.  Never a suggestion of a lifted leg, nor even the briefest of squats.  An unlimited number of intriguing smells, yet none deserving of Kiko’s unique canine signature.  We made our usual circuit and then continued on around the assisted living facility.  Still nothing, so I put him back in the car and headed into the grocery, my fingers numb, my patience tried, my temper short.  I knew that once we got home, Kiko would need another outing.    

Sure enough, as I was dealing with the groceries, Kiko strolled confidently into the kitchen and pawed at the door. On his placid, expressionless face, I read smug entitlement. I love this dog, I thought, but why? By then it was dark, and even colder, but I bundled up as if for an arctic expedition. Fortunately Kiko remembered the reason for the walk, and we were back quickly.

Back into the indoor warmth and the cheerful, comforting lights that currently adorn nearly every room of our house.

On this first day of winter, and on the short, dark days ahead, I’ve found that I need the soft, glowing lights of Christmas like I need food and water. Like my old dog needs his slow, rambling walks. The lights of Christmas are a heartening reminder that in our chaotic, angry, crazy world, God’s love endures.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

–The Gospel of John, 1:5

Tis the Season?

Christmas is five days away.  Every year around this point, I ask myself: how can this be?  How can Christmas be upon us?  But this year, more than ever, time seems slippery, unreliable, prone to eccentricity.  Yesterday seems like a month ago, yet wasn’t Halloween just last week?  Is it because of my advanced age?  Is it because of sudden and broad temperature fluctuations?  In a typical seven-day span, here in Northern Virginia, we experience weather appropriate for all four seasons, sometimes in a single day.  Is it because we’re approaching our third Covid winter, and the weeks and months are draped in a veil of sameness? 

It’s certainly not because I’ve neglected the usual Christmas prep. I haven’t, and it’s kept me too busy to write. The evidence of the season is all around me, but still, this mid-December has an air of unreality. Something just seems off.

After further reflection, I think it may be this: the back-of-my-mind awareness that our daughter will no longer be joining us for an extended winter break. The Christmas season, in recent years, has begun in earnest for me with her arrival home from college. Last year, it started with her final online exam, as she was already here. I think what I’m missing now is the anticipation of having her back with us for about a month. That extra spark of excitement is absent.

At this realization, I had a mental pep talk with myself. Our daughter will be coming home soon, for about a week. She can’t stay longer because she’s gainfully and happily employed. (I’ve never held a job that ticked both boxes.) She’s embarked on a career that relies upon her training. This is why she went to college. At least it’s why the time, trouble and expense of college can be justified. All those demanding classes in aerospace engineering and astronomy are being put to good use. And while she’s a Maryland resident now, she’s closer to home than she was in Charlottesville. When she first began applying for jobs, my husband and I both feared that she’d find it necessary to move to the West Coast. In the rare absence of traffic, she can drive home in about an hour.

So I’m a lucky mama. We should see our dear daughter in two days. And then Christmas Vacation will officially begin.

As my mother reminds me, having recently watched a PBS show about the medieval origins of the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 is only the first day of the festive season. I’ve got plenty of time to get that spark of excitement back. In fact, I’m starting to feel it already.

The spirit of the season is popping up in unexpected places. Here, for example, is a radish that resembles a little head in a pointed elf cap.

The halls have been decked. It’s time to savor the joy of Christmas.

This morning’s full moon, not long after sunrise.

For The Beauty of The Earth

This fall’s brilliant colors and bright sunshine have kept the words of this old familiar hymn very much on my mind. As Thanksgiving approaches, they’re even more appropriate.

For the beauty of the earth,

for the glory of the skies,

for the love which from our birth

over and around us lies;

Lord of all, to thee we raise

this our hymn of grateful praise.

For The Beauty of the Earth, Words by Folliot Pierpoint, 1864, Music by Conrad Kocher, 1838

Walking Provincetown, Continued

In one of my longer Provincetown walks this summer, I got as far as the hilltop apex of Bradford Street, where the tall, narrow Gothic revival cottages above are located. With their sharply peaked roof lines, the structures could well be the home of friendly witches in a children’s book. The neat, enclosing hedge and abundant plantings further enhance the compound’s charming storybook aspect. Built by a sea captain in 1850, and home to several artists over the years, the cottages are now owned by a local art and antiques dealer.

The view toward the bay from the upper windows of the buildings above must be spectacular. I took this photo from just across Bradford Street, at the edge of a precipitous drop.

Flamboyant orange tiger lilies stand out against the weathered shingles of another hilltop Bradford Street home.

Back on Commercial Street, near the heart of town, is the elegant wedding cake building above. At the time of its construction in 1860 as the Center Methodist Episcopal Church, it was purported to be the largest Methodist church in the United States. Its original, emphatically tall steeple was removed after it was damaged in the severe winter storm of 1898. Since then, the arched belfry alone has topped the building. Once the congregation left for a newer, more easily manageable building in 1958, the church became home, for about a decade, to the Chrysler Museum, and later, to the Provincetown Heritage Museum. Following an extensive renovation, completed in 2011, the building now serves as the town’s Public Library.

The building’s light-filled interior is well worth a look. It’s high-ceilinged upper floor still contains a sixty-six foot long, half-scale model of the Provincetown schooner, the Rose Dorothea, winner of the 1907 Lipton Cup Fishermen’s Race. The model, completed in 1988, by a group of volunteers led by Francis “Flyer” Santos, is a tribute to the long tradition of New England shipbuilding and to the intrepid fishermen of Provincetown.

The library, with its large windows, is a lovely place from which to survey the surrounding town. Above, we look across Center Street to the home built around 1870 as the parsonage of the Methodist Church. The current owner is the proprietor of Provincetown’s Shop Therapy, which bills itself as a “world famous alternative lifestyle emporium.” The wild spirit of the sculpture garden that surrounds the house is similar to that expressed in the brightly colored murals that adorn the facade of Shop Therapy. The Pilgrim Monument rises in the background.

This view above shows Commercial Street shops, the harbor, pier and breakwater.

I like to walk the town’s short lanes that connect Commercial and Bradford streets. They offer unique perspectives on enclosed gardens and quiet enclaves mere steps away from the tourist crowd.

Town Hall, as seen from Commercial Street.

Provincetown’s government center is Town Hall, built in 1886 and situated at the very midpoint of the town. Every registered, resident voter is a member of the town’s legislative body. Town Meetings, as well as concerts and special events, take place here in the capacious auditorium. The Victorian building underwent a massive renovation, completed in 2010, after portions of it were deemed structurally unsound. The current green and white color scheme mimics the original palette.

A side view of Town Hall, from Ryder Street.

Following the sale of the Center Methodist Church, the congregation built their new home on Shank Painter Road, a bit removed from the town center. The spare Modernist building opened in 1960. The sanctuary, with steeply sloping redwood walls, resembles the upturned hull of a boat. Provincetown United Methodist Church is a vital hub of community life. In addition to Sunday worship, the congregation runs a Thrift Shop and Soup Kitchen. The church hosts a number of twelve-step groups and serves as a rehearsal space for some theater groups. Our family has been attending worship there once every summer for many years. It has become our church home away from home. We looked forward to being back in the company of the small, welcoming congregation, to an uplifting sermon by the Reverend Jim Cox and to a moving anthem by the delightful “Joyful Noise Choir.” When we arrived on our annual Sunday morning in August 2019, we were surprised, and somewhat alarmed, to see that Reverend Jim was not there. A guest minister presided. Toward the end of the service, she seemed to be stalling for time. Before long, Rev. Jim was proceeding slowly up the center aisle. Gravely ill, he’d come to say goodbye. He died just over a month later. We’re grateful that we could be among the flock that day, to thank him for being such a source of kindness, wisdom and good cheer, for walking the walk of faith and love of neighbor in all circumstances. Appropriately, his Celebration of Life included a New Orleans-style brass band “Second-Line Procession” from Town Hall to the Church.

The Delta surge of Covid prevented us from attending church this year in Provincetown. As of June, the pastor is Edgar Miranda. God willing, we’ll meet him next year.

This large Bradford Street residence, built in the 1870s, stands out for its dramatically peaked gable roof and Stick Style ornamentation. It was home to a succession of artists and merchants before opening its doors to paying guests. Currently operated as Stowaway Guesthouse, its pleasant rooms are brightly painted, and the spacious grounds are lushly landscaped. It’s one of Provincetown’s many inviting, privately run inns.

On every return walk to Truro, I pause again to look back toward Provincetown. The familiar elements are there: the white house, the bay, the curve of the town. When the distinctive features of the Provincetown skyline, such as the Pilgrim Monument, the towers of the Library, Town Hall and the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, are visible, it calls to mind a decorative miniature village in a model train display. On cloudy days, the buildings blur together into a vague impression, a palette knife rendering in tones of gray and white. Sometimes, as in the view from our cottage in Truro, dense fog obscures the town altogether, and the white house could be perched at the very edge of the world. At low tide, the home looks out to a vast, low basin of sand. At high tide, the waters of the bay seem to lap at the base of the porch. The view is never the same, yet always the same. I find this somehow comforting. I know it will be there waiting for me next year. And it reminds me that even in the most mundane of life’s daily routines, there lies the potential for endless variety, for boundless possibility.

I didn’t make it to Provincetown’s far West End this summer. I’ll save that part of the tour for next year.

Out with Kiko, as Morning Breaks

My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer.  His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood.  He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy.  But recently he’s begun to show his age.  When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord.  On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home.  Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind.  Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly.  He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own.  For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers.  He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep. 

Kiko, sampling the copious smells of a vinca patch..

Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen.  Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss?  Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle.  He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced.  I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life.  According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely.  I find this thought comforting. 

Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone.  We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs.  We tend to walk early, soon after sun up.  We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later.  If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind.  Of course, he doesn’t like this.  If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year.  After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend.  I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed.  I sneak out quietly if I go.  

I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though.  There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us.  I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds.  The birds are at their most active and celebratory.  Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again.  There is no point in rushing him.  I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day.   If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing.  I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it.  Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.”  The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:

Morning has broken like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
 

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Kiko, sniffing, and sniffing, and sniffing some more.

*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.”  The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.” 

Spring Beauty & Easter Cheer

This year, Easter in Northern Virginia coincided with perfect spring weather. That’s a rare gift, one that was even more appreciated after a year of covid anxiety, sadness and death. Easter’s hope of the resurrection was made palpable in the beauty of new life in nature that surrounds us.

Bradford pear and cherry trees were in peak bloom, fluffy with clouds of white and pale pink.

The bright red camellia at my mother’s was bursting into flower. 

The weekend’s festive, sunny warmth prompted me to bring our collection of big bunnies out for a top-down ride with Kiko.  Our skeleton friend Slim, currently slumbering in the basement, would approve.  Such a lovely day, he would say, needs to be seized and enjoyed.   

Kiko could hardly contain his happiness.  He did what he typically does when overcome with joy.  He fell asleep. 

Last Easter is a blur.  I remember little more than a bare-bones version of online church and an unseasonable meal.  We were avoiding the grocery, and we hadn’t yet got the knack of online food shopping.  Easter dinner consisted of what we had on hand, which happened to be pot roast, instant mashed potatoes and canned vegetables.  Deep in the freezer section of the fridge, under some forgotten Popsicles that had melted and refrozen a couple of times, I’d discovered a cylinder of frozen crescent roll dough.   It was a relic from the Witch’s Finger pigs-in-a-blanket my daughter made for a Halloween party during her first year in high school.  The use-by date was 2015.  Why not bake up this five-year old dough?  Let’s give it a try, I thought.  Evidently, it wasn’t a health hazard.  And while the rolls were rather flat, they were not actively bad.  Still,  I do not recommend them.

I don’t think I bothered with Easter decorations to accompany last year’s lack-luster meal.  But cheered by this spring’s lovely weather and the hope that an end to our covid odyssey may be in sight, I dove into our Easter-themed goodies and colored eggs from years past.  We have boxes and boxes of eggs, decorated in various ways. (I wrote about these in several posts from 2012. See here and here.) Unless they’re cracked, eggs boiled for a long time over low heat can last for ages.

For example, some of these reddish brown eggs, dyed by boiling with onion skins, are approaching the twenty-year mark.    

Our daughter, finishing up her final semester at the University of Virginia, couldn’t join us.  She would have appreciated my decorating efforts, and she’d have been happy that we had Easter dinner in the dining room rather than the kitchen.  In her honor, I set the table for four, using my grandmother’s old Noritake china, painted in delicate Easter egg colors.  Our daughter would also have found the meal, which included our typical Easter favorites, baked ham, scalloped potatoes, fresh asparagus and deviled eggs, far more satisfying than last year.  When we spoke with her that evening, she was finishing a tricky engineering problem set and running low on food choices.  But at least she wasn’t reduced to baking crescent rolls from 2015.  And we should be able to see her before long at an actual in-person graduation ceremony in Charlottesville.  2020 has made us grateful for pleasures we once took for granted. 

May spring’s annual renewal of life bring you hope and joy!

Up From the Grave He Arose

Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior,

waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Vainly they watch his bed, Jesus my Savior,

vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!

Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior,

he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;

he arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.

He arose! He arose!

Hallelujah! Christ arose!

–words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874

Mission Accomplished! (Good Friday 2021)

“It is finished!” And he bowed his head and released his spirit.

The Gospel of John (19: 30) records these final dying words of Jesus, spoken from the cross. A quick reading might prompt one to hear this utterance as the sad lament of defeated man. Not so fast, though. The Gospel writers Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) don’t report Jesus’s last words. They tell us only that he “shouted out again” or “cried out again in a loud voice” before breathing his last. If we use all three accounts as evidence, what the Son of God likely said was a single word evoking not loss, but satisfactory completion. He spoke in Aramaic, but the original Greek of John’s gospel translates it as “tetelestai.”

This word would have been familiar in several contexts to the people of first-century Palestine. Having completed the last task of the day, a worker might tell his boss, “Tetelestai.” An artist, putting the final touch on a painting, might use the same word. A debt paid in full would be stamped “Tetelestai.” For Jews, the word would have been the Greek equivalent of a familiar Hebrew phrase announced by the High Priest each year on the Day of Atonement. After offering the proper sacrificial animals at the altar of the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priest emerged to tell the assembled crowd that God had accepted the sacrifice of the people.*

Jesus’s final cry before dying was therefore no whimper of pained surrender. Instead it was an exclamation of triumph.** The various frames of reference for “tetelestai” mentioned above are all helpful in understanding Jesus’s use of the word and what his death means for us. His earthly work is done, the masterpiece completed, the debt paid, the perfect sacrifice offered and accepted. In other words, “Mission Accomplished!”

Three of the Gospels include an often overlooked, but immensely significant detail that stands as proof of the change ushered in by Christ’s death. According to Mark 15: 38: “And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This was the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This sacred space housed the Ark of the Covenant, considered by the Jewish people to be the very throne of God. Only priests could enter the Holy place. The High Priest alone entered into that sanctified inner realm, the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year, on that holiest of all days, The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.

Although sometimes referred to as a veil, the Temple curtain was no delicate, gauzy thing that might have ripped easily in a gusty wind. It was a heavy, brocaded cloth, woven with images of protective angels. Only an intentional act of great force could have caused the Temple curtain to be torn fully asunder. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that it was divided from top to bottom, as though from on high. Human hands had no part in this. This was God’s work.

Having destroyed the barrier to the Holy of Holies, God invites his people to approach him directly. Middlemen are no longer needed. The ultimate gift of atonement invites us to be “at one” with God. Having willingly offered his own life for our sins, Jesus and his father tell us that animal sacrifices are a thing of the past. The perfect Lamb of God has paid our debt in full. We are redeemed. Tetelestai!

This is what Jesus referred to earlier at the Last Supper, when he took the cup and told his disciples, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. “(Matthew 26:28) We, and all generations before and after us, are among the many. It was on this same night that Jesus reduced the entirety of his message to this one essential commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” (John 13: 34) See yesterday’s Maundy Thursday post.

So, what then is required of us in these days of the New Covenant? It’s simple. Accept the gift that was given to us in love by our brother and savior Jesus. Admit our shortcomings and try to do better. Focus less on ourselves and more on others. Get back to basics: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Think about that. We have a God who truly desires to walk with us. He wants to walk the road with us, to share in our sufferings as well as in our joys. And if we’re willing to walk with God day by day, in good times and in bad, loving him, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, we usher in his kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.

The Temple curtain has been torn. No barrier remains between us and our loving, faithful God. Tetelestai!

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)

*Michael Maynard discusses the various meanings of “tetelestai” here: It is Finished. . .The Last Words of Jesus, June 25, 2017. 

** See Final Words from the Cross, by Adam Hamilton, pp. 103-104. Our church’s Lenten study (on Zoom) has focused on this insightful book.

Our Time together is short: Here’s What’s Important (Maundy Thursday 2021)

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’s Last Supper. The unusual word “maundy” (not Maunday) comes from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples on his final night with them.  I wrote this post two years ago, but it’s as relevant today as it was then.  Perhaps, more so, during Year II of the covid pandemic.  Why not do our part in changing our troubled world for the better by listening to, and following, Jesus’s valuable life instructions? 

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together. He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close. He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly. But the disciples didn’t understand. Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph. Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory. None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.

But the group must have been fearful and confused. They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders. And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples. He chose his words, and his actions, with care.

According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends. In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness. A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home. If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door. John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah. According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet. Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night? It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5). Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity. External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns. He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering.

The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive. Like many of us, he was often a bit dense. He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet. Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave. Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!” When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17).

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing. Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others. To further drive home his point, he continued: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).

Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group.  They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons.  On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life.  The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law.  Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend.  But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms:  Serve others.  Love others.  Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.

Let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart. Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus. Do our best to follow his example. Try to model his caring, compassionate behavior. We won’t always succeed. Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty. But let’s persevere. And change the world, little by little, through service and love.