The Ministry of the Towel
Maestra Marin Alsop was describing the end of the third movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a wild and even tempestuous passage with instruments and themes all crashing about the orchestra at once, when she said, “And then it seems as if Mahler pauses for a moment and asks, ‘What else can I throw in here? The kitchen sink?’ When suddenly out of nowhere there appears the briefest of gaps in the soundscape and he tosses in one small but assertive ruffle on the snare drum – the only time the snare drum is sounded in the entire symphony.”
That is sort of what traditions have done to Maundy Thursday. What ostensibly is a time of remembrance – a re-membering – of what we refer to as The Last Supper has become a pastiche of readings, music, foot washing, communion, agape meal, stripping the altar, reserving the sacrament, moving us from that moment of the birthing of God’s people, the Exodus/Passover, to our attending to our Lord’s final prayerful moments in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. In the midst of it all, John, oft referred to as simply The Fourth Gospel, inserts just such a snare drum ruffle, directing our attention to the Heart of Christianity, if not the Heart of All Biblical Religion.
It is so artfully portrayed by the anonymous author(s) we call John, that one might miss the chiastic structure of this carefully edited narrative from the thirteenth chapter of John. It begins, “…Jesus knew that his hour had come…Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And ends with the mandatum from which we get Maundy, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love begins and ends this enigmatic little episode. Enigmatic in that here in John’s re-membering of the Last Supper, there is no mention of bread or wine, only foot washing – foot washing bracketed by the Word of God’s Love, what Evelyn Underhill terms “the Divine Charity.”
On a night when we are directed to recall that first moment of God’s saving Love in orchestrating the Great Escape from Egypt we call the Exodus, that archetype of God’s mighty acts in history, a powerful display of God’s mighty love for God’s people, we get instead, drum roll, God on his knees, wrapped only in a towel, washing feet.
It is easy to understand how the disciples, ably represented by Peter, might be expecting a bit more than this on their last night with their Lord and Master. No doubt they want something to remember him by, and perhaps even a bit of his power over death and sin and disease. After all, had he not just come from Bethany where he had raised Lazarus from the grave?
Surely they remember Elijah’s departure where Elisha asks for “a double share of your spirit.” Elijah obliges, leaving behind his mantle he has just used to part the waters of the River Jordan. Elisha picks it up and discovers he too can now make waters part at his command, itself a not-so-subtle reference to that salient moment of the Great Escape! So Peter must be thinking, what will Jesus leave to us on his way out of this world? Is it any wonder Peter seems repulsed to discover that Jesus does not pass on a mantle of authority but rather, drum roll, a towel?
A towel: something used to dry dishes, wipe off tables, wash children, staunch blood, clean wounds, cool fevers, swaddle babies, mop up sweat, blot away tears, warm aching joints, wrap a crucified body and lovingly lay it in a tomb in a garden. To those paying any sort of attention at all, Jesus’ entire ministry might be said to be a ministry of the towel.
So it is we have a towel on the altar of St. Peter’s throughout the mass, Holy Communion, the Last Supper. It holds the Book of the Gospels, those stories that mean to invite us, call us, into a life of service on behalf of others – lessons in humility, hospitality and enacting God’s love in community. We then place the offering plates on the towel containing within them signs of our commitment to extend our Lord’s ministries of the towel beyond the walls of this sanctuary of His. Who owns the church? His mission – serving In His Name. And finally, at the end of the service on Sundays the towel remains as a reminder of who we are, whose we are, and what we are meant to be doing as we depart this sacred space to go back into the world – the world which God so loves that God gives his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.
Note how first and foremost he wants us to experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of service, to accept God’s Divine Charity into our hearts, and minds, and souls. This is the first and great commandment. Jesus knows that unless we possess some awareness of our own vulnerability and dependence on His Divine Charity, our care for others easily devolves into condescension. And unless we allow ourselves to be schooled in the images of the towel and a basin of dirty water we might easily neglect the small, exhausting, inelegant demands of service while seeking out instead spectacular and showy acts of power like parting the waters rather than lovingly pouring them over another’s tired, aching feet.
Finally, we see Jesus not only wash the feet of the faithful disciples, but in full knowledge of the coming betrayal, he washes the feet of Judas as well. For among those of us capable of embracing the dual humility of being served and reaching out to serve others are those who become active agents of reconciliation in a world that is in deep need of such Divine Charity. Think here for a moment about the life and ministry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Or our friend back in Connecticut, Mary Wolfe. Mary is the wife of Pierre Wolfe who teaches the heart of the Gospel in this way: We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. Mary is a prison warden, and as a sign of God’s reconciling Spirit, she and Pierre go throughout the prison on Maundy Thursday to wash the prisoner’s feet.
We come this evening to remember who we are and whose we are. We find a God who is about to be lifted up high upon the cross showing us how we might glorify His Name as he lifts off his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, and gets on his knees to wash our feet. Before coming to Christ’s Table for a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, we should give careful thought to those in our world in need of our humility, our hospitality, and our service, especially those who are in deep need of reconciliation - beginning with and including most especially ourselves.