“This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.” N.T. Wright, an Anglican priest and New Testament theologian, wrote these words for an op-ed in Time Magazine this week, in which he thinks about many of the things we have been talking about these past few weeks:the way events in our world seem to fit right in with Lent – a time to talk about suffering and lament, in the midst of suffering and lament. He says, too, that the global crisis we are currently facing seems to have swept over our Lenten disciplines like a tidal wave: what is giving up chocolate or Facebook in comparison with self-isolation and rations on staples like toilet paper or eggs?
We give thanks for additional time we may have to spend with family and for the friends who reach out to connect with us across the miles; those of us who either are furloughed or are working from home find time for new projects around the house, or the desire and inspiration to give back in some way, to help or comfort those who are less fortunate than we are. But at the back of it all runs an undercurrent of stillness, of a world at pause, a collective breath being held, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There is a similar undercurrent in our Gospel reading for tonight: a “stillness…of poised, anxious sorrow.” John tells us that Jesus knows that the time of his death is at hand, and there is a pervasive feeling of sadness throughout the reading. A sense of the grief that Jesus feels on reaching the end of his earthly life, and on reaching the end of his time with his disciples. John writes, “In having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus seems to be looking toward his death, knowing it is coming but not yet here. And John invites us to look toward Jesus’ death with him.
In the stillness of the waiting, we feel Jesus’ grief. It seeps out of John’s words the way emotion drips out of poetry, inviting us into the pain and the sorrow. The words are simple: “And 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.” A simple, straightforward image of Jesus, full of the knowledge of his identity as the Immanuel, washing the disciples’ feet.
John’s words, in and of themselves, are not filled with emotion. Somehow, in the midst of this story of Jesus spending time with the people he loved the most in the world, we are left with a sense of stillness, of waiting, of the calm before the storm. After this night with his disciples, he will be betrayed, arrested, tried and condemned, and crucified.
But for now, in this moment, John’s Gospel is imbued with this sense of stillness, of waiting, and of lament. Jesus, Immanuel, Christ-with-us, is taking leave of his disciples, giving them his final teaching from this side of the cross. He tells them, “If I…have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example….If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” And later, he tells them what he has already told the Jews: where he is going, they cannot go. And he gives them one final commandment: he instructs them to love one another, just as he has loved them.
There is a poignancy to all of this. It seems as though Jesus is encouraging his disciples to look to the future, knowing he will be with them, even though his presence will have shifted. He can offer guidance and instruction, and hope that they remember and follow his words. But there is a sadness there too. The “poised, anxious sorrow” seem to course throughout his words to the disciples, as he faces his death and they hover on the edge of a grief they don’t yet fully comprehend.
Have you ever been present while someone was dying, sat in vigil at their bedside alone or with others? There is a stillness in that time too, the same “poised, anxious sorrow” that Jesus seems to be living through, and that seems to infuse our daily lives right now. I have been present at the bedside of a dying person both as a granddaughter and as a nurse. Although each death is unique, and the roles of family member and professional caregiver are quite different and bring with them different emotional undercurrents, there is a universality to the experience of an anticipated death.
There is always the stillness of waiting. Regardless of how we keep ourselves busy at the bedside of someone who is dying, whether we are providing care or catching up with people we haven’t seen in a while, doing a puzzle or sitting quietly, whether we are in and out of the room or a constant presence, the stillness of waiting is always present. We are aware of not being on our own timeline – of being powerless to speed it up or slow it down. There is always the “poised, anxious sorrow” – the grief that accompanies someone’s dying. Even nurses in a hospital are not immune to this: someone’s death, even the death of someone we do not know, brings with it a recognition of the inherent worth of the person who has died. As Psalm 116, the psalm appointed for today, says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” There is a recognition that to be in the presence of someone who is dying is to tread on sacred ground.
And there is the care that is provided – the comforting touch of holding a hand, wiping a forehead with a cool cloth, readjusting pillows or blankets. When someone dies in a hospital or a nursing home, they are always bathed after death; one final act of caring. There is something holy about the care we provide to people who are dying, a sense that in some small way, we are honoring and caring for the Spirit that inhabits each of us.
But tonight, Jesus turns that on its head. As he prepares himself for his crucifixion and death, he washes the feet of the disciples. He honors them, reminding them that not only do we tread on sacred ground when we are in the presence of someone who is dying, but also when we are in the presence of the living, in the presence of each other. And he commands the disciples to wash each other’s feet, because in this way, they will be following his example.
I think Jesus washing the disciples’ feet was an expression of love, one final act of care and compassion that was so personal, they would never forget it as long as they lived. I think the disciples, to a person, would remember until their own deaths that on the night that he was preparing for his death, he recognized and cared for the divine in each of them, reminding them that even after his death, he would still be with them. I can imagine that, if they did wash each other’s feet, they were reminded of the care that Jesus showed for them in their time of grief and sorrow – when in the midst of his own grief, he made room for them and reminded them of his love for them.
So what do we do with this today? Often, on Maundy Thursday, we engage in a hand-washing or foot-washing ritual during worship. How, then, do we follow Jesus’ example in our time of “poised, anxious sorrow?” How do we follow Jesus’ example when we cannot wash each other’s feet or hands, for fear of endangering each other’s health?
We cannot be together tonight to take part in a hand-washing or foot-washing ritual, or to greet each other with a word of peace. We are self-isolating, focusing on protecting ourselves and others, including – yes – hand-washing. We can choose to see this in two ways: we can choose to see this as a task that we ought to do that helps to keep us and our loved ones safe, or we can see it as a way to emulate Jesus. We can see it as a way to express our love for each other, a way to honor and care for the Spirit that inhabits each and every one of us. We can see it as one way to fulfill Jesus’ final commandment, to love one another as Jesus loves us, by holding those who we love in our minds and hearts while we wash our own hands, and looking forward to the day when we care for each other face to face again.
As we live in this time of “poised, anxious sorrow” we are reminded of what Jesus seemed to know that night – there is no way around the grief and sorrow that accompanies these times when the stillness is everywhere, not restful but instead an undercurrent in every facet of our lives, a breath we are waiting to exhale. The only way to get to the other side is to go through, to endure the sorrow and the loneliness, and to be reminded of Jesus’ love for us, his disciples, and our love for each other. Even on Maundy Thursday when he prepares to take his leave, even in the midst of isolation and sorrow, Immanuel is still with us in the stillness.