“Do you know what I have done to you?”
That’s what Jesus asks his disciples at their last meal together, after he tied a towel around his waist, knelt down, and washed each of their feet, the job of the menial door servant.
“Do you know what I have done to you?”
The question makes me catch my breath at every Love Feast, each time we read the gospel and enact Jesus’ command that follows: I washed your feet. So, also, you should wash one another’s feet.
So, we do. We tie towels around our waists, kneel down, and wash each other’s feet. Thousands of years later, millions of people enacting his words, libraries of theological tomes, tens of thousands of Christian traditions, from Palestine to Rome, Pyongyang to Roanoke, we do what he did to us.
And every time – every time – the question makes me catch my breath. Do I know what this is? Do I understand how it shapes us? Can I explain to a bunch of jr. highs or a sanctuary of people what happens when we keep kneeling down, tenderly touching one another’s feet? Will I ever?
The answer, Jesus, is always no. I do not know what you’ve done to us. I do not know what this does to us.
I’ve been reading William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist this week – appropriate Holy Week reading – and I cannot get the images of firsthand accounts of torture under Pinochet’s evil regime out of my imagination. Cavanaugh is judicious, offering only what a coddled American reader can stomach, nodding tactfully to the horrors that lie beyond his selections. And still, the stories are haunting. Pinochet, unlike other torturous dictators, did not flog his victims in public. The tormentors would “disappear” the victims and submit them to electro-shock, nightmarish psychological abuse, and other invisible horrors.
The point was not to “make an example” of someone, not to terrorize the people with visible signs of the regime’s capabilities, but to so atomize and isolate the population, to separate and segregate them, to destroy any semblance of human connection so that each person lay vulnerably without buffer between them and the vile, abusive state. The torture of a single person’s body was not sign or symbol: it actually isolated her, exposed her, singled her out and removed her from any possible current or future hope of living in a community of trust or mutuality ever again. The state derived its power from its torturous practices of isolation.
Cavanaugh is headed toward the power of eucharist to resist evil, to connect us one to another, to sustain the church as a force for trust, relationship, togetherness even in the face of such nefarious and unbelievable evil. But as I am reading, all I can think about is this practice we have, of tying towels around our waists, kneeling down on the floor, and dipping our hands into a basin to touch the unappealing feet of another with tenderness.
No, Lord, I do not know what you have done to us. I doubt I ever will. The meaning, the reality, the shimmering truth of what it is keeps unfolding, keeps unspooling. But tonight, having had my feet washed and my cheek kissed, my stomach filled and my neck hugged, having sung in harmony and shared a meal, nurtured the ties that bind us together and cried at the joy of the mysterious thing the Spirit does when we gather and obey your simple commands…tonight I’m wondering about a new bit of the answer. Maybe what you’ve done to us is offered us a way of refusing torturous regimes. Maybe what you’ve done to us is gifted us with this weird, wonderful, ineffable reality of your Presence in our gathered Body, this reality that has the power to resist evil, to deny death, to defeat torture, to overcome despair.
The Jr. Highs gobble up the uneaten communion bread, chug the thimbles of undrunk grape juice. “Want some, Pastor Dana? It’s like two things in one – you get extra communion AND you help clean up.” What have you done to us, Jesus? This is like ten thousand things in one – extra communion, power over death, unspeakable joy of being allowed to become like children: vulnerable, assuming our safety, untroubled by the evils that may be lurking.
Do you know? I don’t. I hope I don’t ever exhaust the meanings. I hope it remains this beautiful mystery, sustaining us and transforming us, all at once.