04/13/17 – Touching the Feet of Christ (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

Eight years ago, during Holy Week, I had the privilege of visiting the largest church in Christendom: St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. I remember it as a multi-sensory experience, as I heard the echo of visitor’s footsteps and the whispers of prayers, smelled and almost tasted the fragrant incense in the air, beheld Michelangelo’s magnificent Pieta and Bernini’s bronze canopy (baldacchino) towering over the high altar; and I remember touching the cool and smooth feet of a bronze statue of St. Peter. Even before touching the feet, I could see that it had been touched and rubbed and even kissed by thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims before me. Peter’s feet no longer looked like human feet, but more like those of a deformed duckbill platypus since they had been eroded and worn down by the hands of countless pilgrims throughout the centuries. Even though it was a statute, pilgrims still experienced holiness and potential healing in simply touching the feet that had been touched and washed by Christ. As Protestants, we have a healthy skepticism of devotion to statues and even icons, yet I still felt something powerful and sacred in touching something that had been so revered and venerated by so many lovers of Christ throughout the centuries. I felt a tangible connection to millions of other Christians both living and dead; and through that experience, I also felt a tangible connection to St. Peter, to Christ, to God.

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation and one of its primary implications is the belief that God makes Godself accessible to us through tangible and touch-able matter and through flesh. Roman Catholics tend to incorporate this doctrine into their spiritual piety more so than Protestants, but this evening we get to experience God by touching and washing each other’s feet just as Jesus washed Peter’s feet and commanded us to do the same.

Usually when preachers (including myself) comment on the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, we explain that foot washing was an expected act of hospitality within ancient Middle Eastern culture, where people often walked long distances without shoes or socks along dusty roads often covered in camel dung. Because people’s feet were often so smelly and disgusting, the foot washing was generally expected to be performed by servants and slaves. So us preachers often highlight the great humility of Jesus who meekly enacts the role of servant and slave as he washes his disciples’ smelly feet, before dying a slave’s death. This is a beautiful and historically accurate understanding of the foot washing practice and one that helps us appreciate the spiritual depth of a practice that might seem rather foreign and even awkward to us today. This context and understanding helps us to see the foot washing as a symbolic act of humility, service, hospitality and self-giving love for one another; as a symbolic way of fulfilling Christ’s maundatum for us to love one another as he has loved us, the maundatum from which Maundy Thursday derives its name.

However, I believe there is something even deeper going on in this symbolic act of washing each other’s feet. Beyond symbolically showing our humility and love for one another, this act invites us to experience Christ in each other’s flesh; to touch and wash the feet of Christ, the very feet of God incarnate. In the Middle East and other Eastern cultures, the feet were much more than a body part that frequently required cleaning. Within [Eastern] culture, the feet of a spiritual master or guru or rabbi were considered to be “channels of divine grace.”[1] In his book Miracle of Love, spiritual teacher Ram Dass writes, “Touching, holding, rubbing the guru’s feet has profound significance in the Hindu tradition. For out of the guru’s feet comes the spiritual elixir, the soma, the nectar, the essence of the sacred Ganges River—the subtle pran, or energy that heals and awakens. To touch the feet of such a being is not only to receive this grace, but it is an act of submission, of surrender to God, for that is what the guru represents on earth.”[2] This Eastern understanding of feet helps illuminate references to foot washing and anointing within our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In Genesis 18, Abraham offers foot washing to visitors who are revealed to be divine. And all four Gospels relate accounts of women anointing the feet of their rabbi and guru Jesus Christ, who comes to be understood as divine. The feet of spiritual masters are channels of divine grace. So it is indeed scandalous and confusing for the divine Jesus Christ to venerate his bumbling disciples as bearers of divinity by washing their feet.

Episcopal priest and author Dr. James Hughes Reho writes, “From the perspective of his culture, Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet is not only giving them an example of humility, he is affirming to them that they themselves carry the Divine within themselves, that they…can and should function as channels of…divine glory, for others. He is venerating them ‘as if’ they are already deified beings, because in one sense they—and all of us—already are.”[3]

According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the divine can be made manifest in material and flesh. We can experience the divine through our bodily senses. This evening, Christ invites us to experience the divine in one another, even in each other’s flesh, in the intimate and sometimes awkward act of touching and washing one of the most sensitive parts of our entire body: our feet. So I invite us to relax into the potential awkwardness and intimacy of this practice and open ourselves up to the possibility that when we touch the feet of one another (each one of us—bumbling disciples), we are acknowledging the divine within each of us and we are touching the flesh of Christ.

[1] James Hughes Reho, Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity (Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2017), 272.

[2] Ram Dass, Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba (Santa Fe NM: Hanuman Foundation, 1979), 33.

[3] Reho, Tantric Jesus, 282.