In his book, The Undertaking: Tales from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch describes what happens in funeral homes when a body is received and prepared for burial. The body is, among other things, stripped and washed. The washing is carefully accomplished. A final act of respect afforded every person’s body entrusted to the funeral home. Young and old. Rich and poor. Male and female. A body decimated by disease. A body broken in an accident. A body riven by a bullet. Every BODY gets the same treatment. Everybody gets bathed.
When I first read Lynch’s account, I couldn’t help but reflect upon how he made the entire action sound…so exceedingly intimate and dare I say it? Sacramental.
In the hands of the undertaker, bodies aren’t treated as pieces of meat. Rather they are afforded the dignity of what they are — the mortal remains of the human beings who once lived, laughed, loved, worked, played, jumped, danced and wept in them. We all may go down to the dust, but the undertaker will prepare us for the journey.
For all of the nakedness that seems to permeate our culture, we remain ill at ease with bodies — particularly dead ones. As one author has put it, we are so uncomfortable with dead bodies, these days the dead aren’t even invited to their own funerals. We prefer “memorial services” and having the dead whisked away from our sight. We often quickly disperse the ashes so that we don’t have to confront the finality of a dead body being lowered into the ground.
The discomfort with dead bodies also translates into an uneasiness about the bodies we walk around in day in and day out. Think about it. We do our best to figure out ways to manage our clothing so we can accentuate the positives of our physicality and minimize those things we deem negative. From the Biblical perspective, we’re in good company — the first thing Adam and Eve did when they recognized their nakedness was to cover up.
At Christmas, we gather around a manger of hay and ogle sweet, little Jesus Boy, while happily ignoring Mary’s unseemly sweat and the pain-filled groans that filled the air as she labored intensely to push him into this world. We conveniently forget about the rustic smells of the cattle cave mingled with the odor of blood (the odor that has, from the beginning, been a part of every successful delivery). We mentally wrap Jesus in gleaming white swaddling clothes and sentimentally place him in a Febreeze-scented manger, convinced that, even in this unsanitary environment, he surely smelled of Baby Fresh lotion and Downy fabric softener.
But tonight (and for the next few days), the Gospel story bombards us with the sights and scenes of the Jesus who lived among us BODILY. Jesus isn’t an “ideal” or a “mythology” or a “concept”. This Jesus had a BODY…a Body that was tired, a Body that was beaten, a Body that was bloodied, a Body that was tortured, a Body that was suffocated by the most advanced execution technology of its day, a Body that breathed its last and died. Not a pretty, peaceful death, but a death of violence, scorn and derision.
But on the night before his death, we see Jesus at dinner with his friends. Before dinner, he lays aside his tunic and takes up a towel. Before the Romans can strip him of his clothing and his life, Jesus strips himself for service. He kneels before his students to wash their feet.*
Given what we hear Peter say to Jesus, I think we can assume people were just as ashamed of their feet in the 1st Century as we are of ours today. Feet hang out in the most difficult of places. In Jesus’ day, feet were mostly uncovered — so they bore the difficulties of dirt and rocks. Feet were calloused and knotted and bruised and scraped and cracked and dirty. Only slaves — the people who lived at the bottom of society — were charged with washing feet.
Jesus takes the role of a slave and washes feet. Finally, even Peter succumbs and allows the dirt and grime to be stripped from his feet by Jesus. The irony here, of course, is that in only a few, short hours Jesus will himself be covered in dirt and grime as he falls repeatedly under the weight of the cross on his way to Golgotha.
When Jesus completes the cleansing ritual, he tells his students, “If I, your Teacher and Master, have done this for you, then you ought to do it for one another.”
We hear these words and immediately we begin to sound an awful lot like Peter: “My feet are my business! I’ve got callouses, corns and bunions. I’m worried about the smell. Having a stranger wash my feet is way to intimate of a thing to do out here in front of God and everyone else.”
We may resist washing each other’s feet, but we will all readily fall in line to eat the Holy Meal. Somehow we’re not as offended by hearing Jesus say, “Take, eat. This is my BODY. Drink this. This is my BLOOD.” (Or it’s as if we haven’t heard him at all.) We can spiritualize the Eucharist. we can abstract it from Jesus’ death. WE can make it a symbol or a memorial. We may be able to turn the Eucharist into a head game, but we can’t make a head game out of feet.
When we think about feet, we come nose to toes with our physicality. We are BODIES…and Jesus was a BODY too! God’s story of salvation isn’t about rescuing souls. God’s salvation is about resurrecting BODIES. God preserves us, Body and Soul. We are a package deal. Every inch of our bodies gets redeemed in Baptism and resurrected on the Last Day — ALL of us! Even our feet!
Tonight, after we’ve washed feet and commemorated Jesus’ gift to us of his Body and Blood, we will engage in a custom that has been a part of Maundy Thursday liturgies for centuries. We will STRIP the altar. Members of our Altar Guild will assist the clergy and acolytes as we remove the candles, the vestments, the ornamentation, the linens and everything else behind the rail that can be moved. The altar will stand before us — naked and exposed.
Then, the Deacon and I will bathe the altar. We will do this, not because it’s dirty, but in an act of contrition and respect. We are preparing it for the death that is Good Friday. When the service is completed this evening, we will darken the sanctuary and leave in silence. I ask that everyone here leave in silence as well. Standing before the stark nakedness of the altar, can there be any other response?
Maundy Thursday strips us of our pretenses. Maundy Thursday strips us of our denial. Naked we came into this world. Naked we will leave it.
Jesus showed us the way to strip for service and to stand in dignity when every last shred of dignity is stripped away. As Jesus’ friends, we see his example and hear his invitation, “As I’ve done for you, so you do for one another. Take and eat. Take and drink.”
With naked feet we walk to this altar. With naked hearts we stand before God. With empty hands we receive the Body broken and the Blood poured. And wonder of wonders…we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness even as we are stripped for Christ’s service.
* The inspiration for this sermon came from an article by The Rev. Dr. Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. The article appeared in the March 21, 2012 edition of Christian Century and is titled: “Holy Week and the Art of Losing: Stripped Bare”.