Saturday, April 11, 2009

John's Theology of the Feet

In Graham Greene's The Comedians, Mr. Brown comments to his secret affair accomplice that "there is no theology in this body," or something to that effect.  He then goes on to uncover her naked in bed and to quote to her lines he remembers by heart from the Song of Songs (taught to him by Jesuits, he informs us).  It is a great moment of irony in which he refuses to equate his sexual lust with any everlasting significance while recognizing in the beauty of her body something of the mysteries of God.  

These last few days, we have done precisely the same thing, though in a very different way.  We have contemplated a body, many parts, to be precise.  And the ones that I want to examine are the feet, the feet of Christ.  There is something profound about Christ's feet that causes great devotion.  I can remember as a child and teenager that my favorite station of the cross, the one that I would linger over the longest, was "Jesus is nailed to the cross."  The way of the cross by Alphonsus Liguori leads the one praying to beg: "Nail my heart to your feet."  That moved me greatly.  At his feet I could receive the blood of Jesus.  It could flow into me and give me new life, replacing my blood with his.   Ignatius invites us to pray at the feet of the cross and to meditate on the meaning of his death.  Because there at his feet, so much can happen.  

John's gospel gives us a theology of feet.  Sounds funny, I know, but if you look in John's gospel, the use of the word "feet" is very significant.  At least I think it is, I don't know anyone else who says it is.  But I say it is.  It occurs 13 times I think, but only in chapters 11-13, the center of the whole gospel and the transition point into the Passion.  First, in John 11:2, Mary of Bethany is mentioned as the one who anointed the feet of Jesus.  This sets us up for what Jesus will do for Lazarus, prefiguring his death and resurrection.  Then, when Jesus raises Lazarus, it says that Jesus tells those standing near to unwrap his hands, his feet, and his face.  In other words, the location of the wounds of Christ.  Lazarus prefigures the offering of Jesus.  

Move to chapter 12, and Mary anoints Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair.  She performs this great act of service before Jesus does in chapter 13.  We all know about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It was a service that not even slaves were expected to have to do.  But there is an ascending theology going on.  First, Jesus commands that Lazarus' feet be unwrapped, a symbol of what he came to do for us, raising us from death to life.  Then, Mary imitates this action of Jesus by doing it for him, since he had done it for her brother.  She is showing her gratitude.  As a disciple, she understands that the actions of Jesus are to be imitated.  He unwrapped her brother's feet, so she washes his feet.  And then in chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples' feet.  

There is always an interesting parallel going on between Peter and Judas.  We know about it during the Passion:  Both betray Jesus, but one asks forgiveness and doesn't despair.  But it begins much earlier.  When Mary anoints Jesus' feet, they are at table, just as they will be in chapter 13.  Mary washes Jesus' feet.  Judas objects, just as Peter will do in the next chapter.  In other words, Mary is light years ahead of the other disciples.  She understands what the feet are all about.  They are a symbol of service, of giving up one's life for another.  And so Judas objects, as we would expect.  He doesn't want to be that kind of disciple.  He doesn't want that kind of master, who expects feet washing from his disciples.  So he objects on principle.  When Jesus stands up at table, he is doing the exact thing that Mary had just done.  It is an incarnational movement.  He stands up from the eternal banquet, puts off his robe of divinity, puts on the towel of humanity, and bends low to wash feet.

Peter objects.   This is not what his Lord should do.  Just as Judas objected, now Peter objects to the exact same thing.  Did Jesus get the idea from Mary?  I think rather that when Jesus unwrapped the feet of her brother, Mary understood.  It clicked for her, what this Jesus thing was all about.  It is about raising from death to life.  Jesus unwrapped her brother's feet, setting him free, performing the act of service that would give him a new life.  And so when she perfumes Jesus' feet, Jesus understands what she is doing: preparing him for his own burial and resurrection.  She understands the pattern.  

But Peter doesn't, and so he objects.  And Jesus makes it clear that without our feet washed by him, we have no part in him.  Peter then asks for his whole body to be washed, but Jesus once again lets him know that he is missing the point.  It is not about being washed, it is about the feet.  "Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over." Being bathed or not bathed is not the issue, for even those who have bathed need their feet washed.  No matter how clean you are, how moral, how law-abiding, how perfect, unless Jesus washes your feet, you have no part in him.  You need Jesus.  You need his service.  You need his purification in the filthiest, lowliest part of your body, or you have no place in his kingdom. That is where he looks, at your feet.  Even the lowliest part of yourself must be incorporated into the kenotic structure of the Christ event, or you have no part in Jesus.

This is his model for us.  Go to the dirtiest depths of each person you meet, and wash that part. Offer Christ.  Put on the towel of Christ, bend down, and get washing.  Or else you are not any disciple of his.  

This is John's theology of the feet.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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