Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Art in Lent: the washing of the feet

It is one of the more curious discrepancies of the gospels that John does not include an account of the Last Supper, in terms of the sharing of bread and wine as the act of remembrance. Instead the writer of the last gospel account to be put on paper tells the story of a man preparing his small anxious band of followers through words and actions that are not recorded in the other three gospels. Perhaps he thought the other three gospel writers had got the bread-and-wine bit covered; after all, this is clearly all happening at the same event written of by Matthew, Mark and Luke, at which the shared body and blood was central. Yet it was another demonstration of love that John recounted, one that was ignored by the other three: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
I have difficulty understanding this passage. Jesus asks at the end, ‘Do you understand?’, as if the message is simple and straightforward; as if there is only one possible answer. But if this were a multiple choice question I would always be left with at least two plausible right answers. So let’s try that: did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet because
a) they were dirty and a bit smelly
b) he was demonstrating his humility, and wanted to teach them humility
c) he wanted them to do exactly that for one another – wash each other’s feet
d) he wanted them to learn that they would always need to be make clean in his presence?
The tradition in Jewish households of the time was that the feet would be washed by a servant on arrival. This was a necessary act; after tramping dusty roads in a hot country wearing sandals – and no socks – the feet were offensive to others; and in a culture where diners reclined at table, the feet would be clearly visible – and smellable! Yet the passage says Jesus got up from the meal to wash the feet. The feet should have been washed already; this was a symbolic act, just as the sharing of one cup is not meant to slake the thirst, but to symbolize our union into the death of Christ.
After he has washed the feet of all, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you should wash one another’s feet,’ because ‘no servant is greater than his master’. The message is not one of dealing with dirt; it is of servanthood within the body of Christ. Jesus made himself the lowly footwasher – what will he require of us?
And there is another important lesson, in the exchange between Peter and Jesus.
‘Jesus answered, A person who has had a bath needs only
to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.’
The washing of the feet in this sense seems to symbolize our need for regular confession and forgiveness. We are washed clean completely when we come to Christ, in the first instance, on our knees; but we must have the humility and self-awareness to come regularly with the daily grime of our petty selfishness. And every time, our Lord kneels before us, to make us new.
So this is not one simple message; and in this way it does mimic the bread and wine, in its multi-faceted symbolism.
There are many pieces of art that depict the last supper, but far fewer that show Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In our Lent art group last week we looked at four images, three depicting the events as told by John and one a portrait of footwashing in a different context.
Ford Madox Brown was an English artist born in 1821 and closely linked to the pre-Raphaelites through his tutorage of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The scope of his worrk is huge, ranging from portraiture to landscapes, sacred to secular, historical to present day commentary. His ‘Jesus washing Peter’s Feet’ caused an outcry when first exhibited in 1856 as it depicted Jesus semi-clad – the artist had to go back and paint robes in later, as it remained unsold for several years.

Ghislane Howard painted the image at the head of this post. She is a British contemporary artist whose paintings focus on the human condition. She has worked as the artist-in-residence for a Manchester maternity hospital, painted children with cerebral palsy learning to walk, and been commissioned to paint her take on the Stations of the Cross by Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Jesus washing Peter’s feet was commissioned for the Methodist art collection.
Sieger Koder is a retired Catholic priest living near Stuttgart. During the second world war he served Germany as a front line soldier in France, where he was captured and made a British prisoner of war. After the war he studied to be a teacher, then worked as an artist and art teacher. His art is predominantly paintings of gospel scenes, which invite the viewer into the scene depicted: the companion piece to the washing of Peter’s feet is his last supper, in which we see things from Christ’s angle, looking down at the cup in his hands in which we again see his reflected face.

We discussed these three images. Responses were varied, although Madox Brown was the least preferred - his Jesus is too far from the simple carpenter we imagine, and the painted-on robes were less appreciated by modern sensibilities. Peter seems too old, but suitably obstinate. His onlookers were appreciated, however - particularly the interpretation of the the beloved disciple as the watching blond man at the table, drinking in his Lord's actions in order to record them for us later. Howard's rough and ready Peter, engaged in a moment of private vulnerability before a friendly and unassuming Lord, appealed to most. Koder's Christ seems engaged in an act of contortion, and it is perhaps a pity that the face reflected in the water does not register more obvious emotion. But it is poignant to see the face of Jesus peering back from the grime of human feet, echoing the stench of Golgotha. Here he wears a scarf reminiscent of the garb of a Jewish priest: it is his cleansing that makes us clean, to walk into the courts of heaven.
 Our preferred image is this one, by Mary Cassatt who was an American-born painter of the later nineteenth century. Trained in Paris and a friend of Degas, she painted intimate portraits of domestic life such as this. There is something about its simple service and adoration that we loved. A mother does not see washing a child's feet as a chore, nor does she pause to consider her status. The feet are precious to her: beloved. Those of us whose children have now grown ache and long for one more chance to wash tiny toes, holding the child on our lap as we whisper songs into their ear. 
In the three images above we see Christ as servant, as priest, as carpenter-king, and as friend. But Jesus as parent - God as mother-father - gives us a fresh perspective on his intention.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Keeping Time with Jesus

 Lenten Companion

When do we pray? Don Saliers reminds us that some in the early church believed that “the life of the Christian is one long continual prayer.” During this season, Dr. Saliers invites us to consider the Church’s Lenten journey as a double journey “into the mystery of God’s unfathomable grace and into the depths of our humanity.”

The Church’s Lenten journey is a double journey: into the mystery of God’s unfathomable grace and into the depths of our humanity. Both are required. For some of us the pathway to divine encounter is when we confront our deepest needs; for others it is only when God’s love suddenly embraces us that we begin to learn about the mystery of being human. The Christian community cannot avoid this journey because, for the Church, it is also a liturgical pilgrimage journey toward Easter and the mystery of our baptism into Christ—a confrontation with the “gap” between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be; the gap between who we are and who Christ calls us to be.

At the heart of the Christian faith and our life together is our entry into the life, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and Spirit-giving of Jesus Christ. Lent calls us to face in the direction God’s embodied love looks. We proclaim that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Born into our human history in the fullness of time for our salvation—and the redemption of the whole world—Jesus lived and suffered and died our death. But God “raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand…, and has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20, 22-23.) This is the Paschal Mystery which the season of Lent prepares us for, the mystery which Easter and the Great Fifty Days celebrate.

When we speak of the Paschal Mystery, we point to the inexhaustible range of meanings found in the saving work of Christ and in the church’s participation in his life poured out into our world—into our lives, our struggles, our hopes and disappointments, our sorrows and deepest joys. We use this term to refer to the depth of the Eucharist itself. This Paschal Mystery has everything to do with our baptismal journey in Lent, and with re-entering the narrative of passion-death-resurrection. My favorite definition of the Christian liturgical year is “keeping time with Jesus.” Thus Lent is a way of keeping time with the whole story that unfolds from Ash Wednesday through Easter to Pentecost. The journey is from ashes to fire.

So we are summoned to fast and pray. We pray through the astonishing images given in Scripture this season. As Jesus faced temptation, so must we. As he struggled with human misunderstanding, so must we. As he healed the sick and fed the hungry, so must we pray and work for healing and for feeding the hungry. As he faced mortality and human weakness, so must we. As he steadfastly journeyed toward Jerusalem, so must we face the world’s conflict of good and evil. All of this is prayer. As some in the early Church have said, the life of the Christian is one long continual prayer.

Our double journey unfolds the whole range of our humanity before God and neighbor. We go the way of Christ’s liturgy. Take heart, the One who bids us follow has gone this way and will not fail us. The Paschal Mystery embraces and sustains us on our way.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Second Sunday of Advent
Piazza di Spagna, 8 December 2002
1. "Hail Mary, full of grace!"
Immaculate Virgin, here I am at your feet once again,
full of devotion and gratitude.
I return to this historic Piazza di Spagna
on the solemn day of your feast
to pray for the beloved city of Rome,
for the Church, for the whole world.
In you, "humble and highest of creatures",
divine grace had the full victory over evil.
You are for us, pilgrims on the paths of the world,
the bright model of evangelical fidelity
and the ever-living pledge of sure hope.
2. Virgin Mother, "Salvation of the Roman People!"
Watch over, I pray you, the beloved Diocese of Rome: 
over pastors and faithful, parishes and religious communities.
Watch over families especially: 
may love sealed by the Sacrament ever reign between spouses,
may children walk on the paths of goodness and true freedom,
may the elderly feel surrounded by attention and affection.
Inspire, Mary, in so many young hearts,
generous replies to the "call for the mission",
a subject on which the diocese has
been reflecting over the years.
Thanks to an intense pastoral programme for vocations,
may Rome be enriched by new young forces,
dedicated with enthusiasm to proclaming the Gospel
in the city and in the world.
3. Blessed Virgin, Queen of Apostles!
Assist those who through study
and prayer are preparing to labour
on the many frontiers of the new evangelization.
Today I entrust to you, in a special way,
the community of the Pontifical Urban College,
whose historic headquarters are located in front of this pillar.
May this wonderful institution founded 375 years ago
by Pope Urban VIII for the formation of missionaries,
be able to continue effectively its ecclesial service.
May those it gathers, seminarians and priests,
men and women religious and laity,
be ready to put their energies at the disposition
of Christ in service of the Gospel to the far corners of the globe.
4. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!"
Pray, O Mother, for all of us.
Pray for humanity who suffers poverty and injustice,
violence and hatred, terror and war.
Help us to contemplate with the rosary
the mysteries of Him who "is our peace",
so that we will all feel involved
in a persevering dedication of service to peace.
Look with special attention
upon the land in which you gave birth to Jesus,
a land that you loved together with Him,
and that is still so sorely tried today.
Pray for us, Mother of hope!
"Give us days of peace, watch over our way.
Let us see your Son as we rejoice in heaven". Amen!