Maundy Thursday ~ John 13:3-17
During supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Are there towels in your bathroom at home? Of course there are! And there are towels in the kitchen too, and in the loo, indeed wherever there is running water, we have towels to wipe and dry our hands. Paper towels, linen towels, tea towels, snuggly soft bath towels, they all have the same purpose, and we never give them a second thought, because they are ubiquitous: ever present in our homes, and if for any reason they were absent we would notice very quickly.
In the same way, in our gospel reading this evening, the towel is very much present, but it is the last thing we notice, if at all. Like the tea towel in the kitchen, we take it for granted and focus on other things. Yet without that towel that Jesus put on to dry the disciples’ feet, after washing them, the story would be very different. In reading and hearing the profound account of how Jesus invites his friends – his family effectively – to supper, of how he washed their feet, taught them, and instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Communion, eucharist, or Mass – in all this the humble towel is barely an accessory.
There are other towels associated with Jesus of course, which are less humble. The most famous is probably the Mandylion of Edessa, allegedly created after King Agbar of Edessa, (now Urfa in Turkey), sent a painter to the Holy Land to make a portrait of Jesus. He was unable to do it because of the dazzling light emanating from Jesus’ face, but the legend says Jesus wiped his face on a towel after washing and his image became indelibly printed on it. Not surprisingly, various healing properties were later attributed to the Mandylion, which is still housed in the Matilda Chapel in the Vatican. Meanwhile there is in Spain the Sudarium of Oviedo, another linen face cloth which although it does not have an image of a face on it, is claimed to have been used to cover Jesus’ face at his burial (see John 20:6-7). Some people have connected this cloth to the even more famous Shroud of Turin, which for centuries has sparked controversial theories about whether it could possibly be the linen grave-cloth in which Jesus’ body was wrapped.
Another famous story concerns St Veronica, who is supposed to have wiped Jesus’ face as he passed along the Via Dolorosa, perspiring from the burden of carrying the cross. Unfortunately, her name, Veronica, reveals that she did not exist. The Bible does not claim that she did, nor that anyone had a towel handy as Jesus struggled along the Way of the Cross. Legend has it that Veronica was the woman who showed compassion for Christ, and her name is thought to literally mean ‘true image’. One account, enshrined in the apocraphyal Acts of Pilate even identifies her with the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment in order to be healed (Matthew 9:20-22). The story evolved that Christ’s facial impression was left on the towel Veronica used and this picture became the basis for the first paintings: ikons, of Jesus. Paintings of Veronica by Hans Memling and others have cemented this idea in Christian culture. But her name is not a hybrid from the Latin for true (vera) and the Greek for image (eikon), as many suppose, but is actually the same as Berenice, a wholly Greek name from pherein (bring) and nikê (victory). So Veronika means ‘bringer of victory’, and that is a name we would be more likely to apply to Christ himself. For in taking up his cross, dying upon it and rising on the third day, it is he who deserves the name Veronica: the bringer of victory.
The victory that Christ brings, is not a warlike, triumphant one, but is rather found in servanthood. The towel that he put on in that upper room is much more important than linen cloths of dubious provenance that have become objects of devotion. It was a humble towel for a humble act of simple, authentic service to his friends.
Nowadays footwashing is mostly reserved for the service on Maundy Thursday when, emulating Jesus, the clergy might wash the feet of twelve parishioners. The royal Maundy money has its origins in the same idea, that the monarch humbles him or herself, serving those over whom they would normally rule.
In Jesus’ day, footwashing was a standard activity for anyone welcoming a guest into their home. In the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana, we might notice that the large jars of water that he turned into wine (John 2:1-11) were actually storage jars for water that was used, not for drinking, but for footwashing. People did not generally drink water, which was unhygienic; rather they drank wine, so when it ran out, there was nothing to drink, so Jesus’ turning water into wine was radical on every level. Similarly, when Jesus visits the house of Simon and a woman washes his feet with tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7:38), she is only doing what the host should have done when Jesus arrived. Or rather, what the host should have done is have a servant wash the feet of the guests as they arrive, hot and sweaty from the dusty streets outside. For as Jesus himself says, even if one has bathed, one cannot avoid dirty feet. First, a rinse with water, second, drying with a linen towel, and then perhaps some perfumed oil or ointment to finish the job nicely and make the guest feel good. So, the footwashing involved not only the services of a servant, but also a certain amount of pampering, treating guests somewhat royally.
When we understand this, it becomes clear what a topsy-turvy, first-shall-be-last thing it was that Jesus did. Jesus, hailed only a few days earlier as King of the Jews, treats his friends as royal guests, crawling on the ground before them to rinse dust and dirt off their feet, and then drying them with a linen towel with which he has girded himself for the long haul of twenty-four soles of feet. Peter, famously, resists, until Jesus insists. For Jesus’ serving Peter and the others is a manner of calling: just as minutes later he would say ‘do this in remembrance of me’ in breaking bread, he does for them what they are being called to do for others. Jesus has spent a lot of time teaching the disciples, but this night, at the Last Supper, it I more about ‘do as I do’. So while the towel gets forgotten amidst all the other excitement of the Last Supper story, it is just as important, because it is wrapped around the man who is king, being subservient to those whom he is calling into service. It is through service that Christ brings the victory, it is in service that he truly is the Veronica, the Berenice, the one who humbled himself in service, first with a towel, and then on a cross.
To him be all honour and glory, tonight, and always.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 13th April 2017