Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, Faith Community Nurse and Lay Preacher
Tonight we hear the moving story of Jesus’ and the disciples’ last meeting and meal. It is the story of ordinary actions, washing the dust off and sharing food, ordinary actions done with extraordinary love. That night the disciples gathered with Jesus, rumors about Jesus’ arrest were in the air. Jesus, of course knew what was about to happen and, I think, perhaps the disciples did too. I expect they ate quickly and quietly, and on this most holy night, Jesus chose this everyday action of washing to teach us a most important lesson, a lesson about love. Jesus knew that Peter was about to deny him and that Judas had already conspired to betray him. In spite of this, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his friends and enemies alike; a gesture of Love, the ordinary kind, given freely to everyone.
Such an ordinary action, foot washing, on this extraordinary night. Jesus teaches us about love in ordinary ways; a drink of water and a conversation by the well with a Samaritan woman, or a meal at Martha and Mary’s home. We know he breaks all the rules of the society of his day, but I think that on Holy Thursday Jesus also wanted to teach us that love, given through ordinary actions, with awareness and mindfulness, can be the most powerful love of all, the kind that passes all understanding. Ordinary expressions of love: the casserole you bring to a grieving neighbor, the therapy dog who visits nursing home patients, the prayer shawl or comforting quilt. Tonight we receive from our neighbors at Saints James and Andrew, a gesture, an ordinary action, given with love, love that is freely given, love that is not earned, and love that is not necessarily deserved.
It’s risky, isn’t it, this love freely given. Risky because the more we open to love, the more we risk betrayal or loss or pain. We risk security and stability when we open to love. But it’s a beautiful and worthy risk, because without it we are stuck, stuck not moving forward, stuck without growth, without opening to the possibilities of the future.
Ordinary actions make up most of life. Excellence is wonderful, isn’t it, and who doesn’t want to pursue it, who doesn’t want to change the world? But life is really made up of one ordinary action after another, get out of bed, make your bed, show up on time and prepared for school or work, say thank you, help a neighbor, cook, clean, do it again. Washing the dishes might not just be a mindless task, maybe, if we are fully awake and aware, we can find God there too.
The ancient Celts understood something about this. Esther de Waal, in her book, “Every Earthly Blessing” describes it as an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane and earthy. It is the sense that God informs daily life and transforms it, so that any action can become the time and place for an encounter with God. She says that “nothing is too common to be exalted, and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common”. The Celts everyday actions were infused with images of the way God interacts with his people. For a blessing on your journey “May the road rise to meet you, St Patrick’s beautiful litany: “Christ be with you, before you, behind you, when you sit down, when you arise. “A blessing was spoken as the fire was laid and as the children went out the door. A new- born infant would be commended to the Trinity by her Mother. She would be handed across the hearth fire three times and then carried sun-wise three times around the fire with the help of the neighbors who had assisted at the birth. Three drops of water would be placed on her forehead and then the prayer spoken: “And I beseech the Holy Three to bathe this child and to preserve it to Themselves. All the people in this house are raising their voices with the watching-women giving witness that the child has been committed to the Holy Trinity.” This was called the “Mother’s Baptism” , it preceded the formal “clerical” baptism when the child was received into the church.
Washing is a very ordinary activity. When I think of the number of times my hands are in the dishwater each day, the number of baby parts I’ve washed and noses wiped. A cool cloth on a feverish brow is very ordinary, but when I look down on the beautiful faces of my kids and grandkids, and when I am awake and fully present in the moment, I feel indescribable love and the presence of Holy Spirit.
When I was a much younger, new nurse, I cared for an elderly women who passed away (not unexpectantly), on my shift. Her sister was constantly by her side in the last days of her life. After the patient died, I gave her sister some time to be alone and when I returned to the room she asked “when will you be giving her her last office?” She offered to step out of the room to give me privacy. It took me a minute to make the connection; from church I remembered the Office of Compline from the Daily Offices. I realized that she was referring to what we in nursing school and hospital policy called “post mortem care”. Last Office refers to the care given to the body after death. We do specific things (including washing), some according to policy, for health, safety and legal requirements, some focused on respecting the person’s religious and cultural beliefs. In ancient Egypt and Rome this washing was delegated to professionals, but otherwise, it was traditionally performed by family, friends and neighbors. In the modern Western world it’s most often a nursing procedure. The word office comes from the Latin, meaning service or duty. In the Muslim faith the body after death should face east (toward Mecca) and care after death should be given by someone of the same gender. Buddhist families may wish to wash and prepare the body. In the Hindu culture, daily bathing is required until cremation can occur, and the body is not to be left alone. I had studied these cultural practices in nursing school, but there was something about the way my patient’s sister asked me that made it sound so important, so exquisite, like I would be giving her a gift, my final gift. This washing was preparation, (like preparing the altar for worship or setting the table for the Eucharist.) Not with the words of a priest, but a simple washing by her ordinary nurse. Ordinary earthly actions, extraordinary love and meaning. I was washing my patient, and holding on to the hope of God to call her home. I helped our Hospice Nurse wash my Dad after he died, I hope it was a gift to him, I know it was a gift to me.
We are encouraged by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to practice “The Way of Love”, trying to turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go and rest, all practices for a Jesus -centered life. These rules of life, all modeled by Jesus, just like this generous act of foot washing, can be given with love, so that we truly can bless everyone we meet, even beyond our circle and comfort, risking loss, hoping for joy, infusing the ordinary actions of life, like washing, with extraordinary love, love freely given to the beloved community of God. Amen.
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