Holy Thursday: A Feast of Humility

Every year, the services of Holy Week bring before us selections from the Old Testament, of Jacob, of Joseph and his brothers, the great prophets Moses and Job.  We hear the ancient prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah with an awareness that everything that has happened before, everything that has been spoken, reaches its fulfillment in our Lord’s passion. During the services, the Gospel passages recount Christ’s final teachings to his disciples, as well as the events that lead to his Passion.  As the week moves on, the pace quickens as our Savior hastens to the events that are so familiar to us: the dinner, the trial, the scourging, the haggard procession with the cross, and the brutal crucifixion itself.  The Church speaks of an end, but now as the end of this week draws near, we must also speak of the beginning, and understand both what is old and coming to an end, and also what is new and coming to life.

All around us outside, the natural world proclaims this pattern: the sun casts more light upon the earth than night’s darkness.  As the prophet says, “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”  (Song of Solomon 2.11-12)  The Hebrews even reckoned the annual commemoration of the date of Pascha according to this natural order: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, is the Lord’s Pascha.”  (Lev 23.5-6)

Commenting on the Lord’s Pascha, some Church fathers seized on this idea of annual re-creation and used images from it to describe this liturgical season of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Many noted that this was even the traditional time of the original creation of the World; it was a natural transition to see Holy Week and our Lord’s death and resurrection as a recapitulation of that original creation.  The new creation begins on Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday when our Lord once again separates light from darkness as he calls forth the dead to life.  And as the great King and true light of the world, meekly bearing salvation, he enters into his city, Jerusalem, with great acclamation.  This great light increases even more as his death, burial, and resurrection draw near.  In the face of the brilliant light of our Lord’s passion, the two lights of creation, the sun and the moon, diminish and no longer illumine the world alone.  The week goes on, and on this holiest of all Fridays, our God fashions man anew, as his Christ is crucified.  From the side of this new Adam will not come a rib, but blood and water, by which he establishes and nourishes the Church.  After this will be the Great and Holy Sabbath, the last day of the old creation; God will rest again.  And on the next day, the eighth day, the first day of the new Creation, the man of the earth, once bound by death, will be freed in the life of Christ Jesus.  There will be a new Creation, peopled by those who have been formed by his word, nourished on the food of his body, and illumined by the light of his power.

Here, on this fifth day, on this Holy Thursday, our attention is drawn to numerous themes – the mystical supper, the scheming of the elders, the treachery of Judas.  But let us stop and consider only one event of this day, the washing of the feet.  For here again on this fifth day, the waters splash as they did on the original fifth day, not with every sort of sea creature, but with our Savior calling forth a new way of life for his new creation.  With the knowledge “that the Father had given all things into his hands,” (Jn. 13.3) the eternal Word of God stoops down and humbly puts his hands in the basin of water to wash his disciples’ feet.  By this humble act, as he washes away the filth and grime from feet that trod upon the dusty paths of Palestine and the alleys of Jerusalem, he will create new winged creatures, as man will soar to the heavenly heights of virtue and will keep company with the angels in the presence of God the Father, with his Son, in the Holy Spirit.

The hymnography of Holy Thursday speaks of the washing of the feet as the time “when the disciples were illumined.”  Illumination is, of course, also the way the Church speaks of the mystery of Holy Baptism.  The Church can use this term for both the washing of the feet and Holy Baptism, because the results are the same: we put on Christ, who is our Teacher and Lord, and strive to be all that he is, by doing what he has commanded.  He says as much plainly: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  (Jn 13.14-15)  This is how the heavenly heights are opened for us: we will ascend to the heavens when we understand what he did to his disciples and for us, and when we follow his command to “wash one another’s feet.”

We should make no mistake; “foot washing” is not an easy task even now, in our world with all the benefits of modern hygiene.  The extent of our Lord’s love for us can be seen precisely in this, as he takes the filthy, dirty feet of his disciples and washes them clean.  The dirt and grime are precisely what makes this act so beautiful.  In that soiled water, our Lord has called forth new life, a life purified and clean.  He has called forth life that proclaims power in weakness, the triumph of humility and service, the victory of love, and the death of selfishness.  Out of these waters, just like the waters of baptism, he has not called us to be proud or powerful.  He has not empowered us to be self-centered or self-interested.  He has not challenged us to become successful men or women by the standards of the world.  No, he has called us to emulate him.  If we have called him our Lord and King at our baptism, we ought to “wash one another’s feet,” just as our Lord and Teacher has done.

On this day, we are given a vision of God’s new creation.  For all of us who live in this new creation, “washing one another’s feet” means giving ourselves to one another in all love, humility, and service.  The new creation is to be populated by those who are willing to beautifully debase themselves and wash the feet of their brothers and sisters, to offer themselves, to humble themselves, to give entirely of themselves, not being concerned by position, status, authority, pride, pomp, or any consideration other than loving their brother and sister the way the Lord has loved them and in exactly the same fashion.

Fathers, brothers, and sisters, as we stand now at the foot of the steps, ready to ascend to the upper chamber and, as companions of our Lord, to partake of the Divine Word, let us commit ourselves once more to this same Lord, who is going to his voluntary passion for us and for our salvation, to inaugurate a new creation.  Let us pray therefore that by emulating in him in our words, deeds, and thoughts, we may find ourselves in that chamber with him and with all those who have been well pleasing to him from all the ages.  Amen.

Archpriest Alexander Rentel (SVOTS ’95) is Assistant Profess or of Canon Law and Byzantine Studies and the John and Paraskeva Skvir Lecturer in Practical Theology. Fr Alexander finished his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Fr Robert Taft, SJ, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in January 2004. Prior to coming to St Vladimir’s as a professor, Fr Alexander was a 2000-2001 Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. He has taken numerous research trips to Greece, Italy, and France. He was ordained to the priesthood in July 2001. He and his wife, Nancy (née Homyak, SVOTS ’95) are the proud parents of three children, Dimitrios, Maria, and Daniel.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Holy Thursday: A Feast of Humility

  1. I note that all the sermons are written by men, never women. I don’t know the set-up of your church and seminary, whether the priests are celibate or not. In this sermon, “Fathers and brother and sisters” are called to, but not Mothers. May I ask the reason for this?

  2. In this context they aren’t familial titles at all. “Fathers” refers to clergy, as in “Fr. John,” or “Fr. Deacon William.” “Brothers and sisters” are all Orthodox Christians.

  3. So – there are no female clelrgy in your church?

  4. There are no female priests, bishops, or altar servers in the Orthodox Church. Historically, and I think this is still the case in a few places, there have been deaconesses though there is some debate about whether or not they served at the altar and their role in the modern Church more generally.