At Home in Lent ~ Holy Wednesday: Towels
Wrapped in service
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.’
We have towels in the bathroom, kitchen and toilet. 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. If for any reason they were absent, we would notice very quickly.
In the same way, in today’s passage, 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 (who are effectively his family) to supper and how he washes their feet, teaches them and institutes 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 that 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 that 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. In Spain, the Sudarium of Oviedo, another linen face cloth, is claimed to have been used to cover Jesus’ face at his burial (see John 20:6–7), although it does not have an image of a face on it. 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 with a cloth as he passed along the Via Dolorosa, perspiring from the burden of carrying the cross. This act of compassion, however, appears to be legend. The Bible says nothing about a woman or anyone else having a towel handy as Jesus struggled along the Way of the Cross, and her name, Veronica, also indicates that she did not exist. While it is thought to mean ‘true image’ – a hybrid of Latin (vera) and Greek (eikon) – the name is in fact a variant of Berenice, a wholly Greek name from pherein (‘bring’) and nike (‘victory’). ‘Bringer of victory’ 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 such a moniker.
The victory that Christ brings is not a warlike, triumphant one, but rather is 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.
When we understand this, it becomes clear what a topsy-turvy, first-shall-be-last thing it was that Jesus did. Hailed only a few days earlier as king of the Jews, he 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 24 soles. Peter famously resists, until Jesus insists. Jesus’ serving of Peter and the others is a manner of calling: just as minutes later he would say, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19) in breaking bread, so he does for them what they are being called to do for others. Jesus has spent a lot of time teaching the disciples, but that night, at the last supper, it is more about ‘do as I do’.
While the towel gets forgotten amid all the other dimensions of the story of the last supper, it is just as important, because it is wrapped around the man who is king, serving those whom he is calling into service. It is through service that Christ brings the victory, that he truly is the Veronica, the one who humbled himself in service, first with a towel and then on a cross.
Lord, as you took up the towel of service in the upper room, wrap us in your mercy that we too may be ready to serve you in every way. Amen
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.
Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018