There is a big leap of faith asked of Peter and the other apostles in today’s gospel story. Jesus is asking them and, by extension, us to make room for a big change in the way we think. The dominant way for all of us to avoid change in our lives—even change that helps us grow—is to go into our heads. We all do it, and we will all be doing it right up to the day we die. Human minds love to argue, oppose, critique, judge, evaluate, and adjust—it gives our little minds a job. The mind does serve us well in many daily tasks, but it is not the best tool for serious spiritual growth. The head is the control tower where the uninitiated ego, the ego that is not in dialogue with our soul, loves to reside and hold court. The mind, even in the most open-minded person, tends to take in only information that reenforces what it already knows and push away anything that does not affirm it. Maybe that is why when Jesus wanted to change our minds, he stopped teaching and just fed us. He knew the way to a man’s heart (and apparently to a woman’s heart, as well) is through the stomach. (I’m so shallow, I’d sell my soul for a chocolate Easter bunny right about now!). From the time Jesus was born, and laid in a food trough–a manger–the only thing he ever want to do was to get in the way of our mouths.
On that first Holy Thursday, Jesus did not give us a lesson or a sermon or an instruction manual; he gave us a ritual. The ritual in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the Eucharist, and the ritual in Gospel of John is the foot washing. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we are only able to do one of those rituals tonight.
At the level of your soul, the deepest part of who you are, words have always and will always fail you. Have you ever stood before something that was so full of truth and beauty that no words could come out of your mouth? I have. The reason you could not talk is because you were in touch with your soul at that moment, and in that place of soul, words are inadequate. Similarly, maybe you experienced something so unjust, or painful, or sad that words could not express it. Again, in that moment, you bypassed the mind, bypassed the world of words, and you were touching soul. St. Paul says that it is the Spirit speaking within us with groans too deep for words.
At the foot washing, Jesus is inviting the apostles, and especially Peter, to go to that space. Peter neither understands the foot washing nor does he like it. His mind won’t let him. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Peter, I know you have so many objections at the level of your mind, but can you just let go long enough to enter into this ritual? This ritual, which you will only understand later on, will teach you more than any of my words ever could. All I ask is for your surrender.”
The language the soul speaks is metaphorical, symbolic, images, dreams, poetry and is best experienced in ritual and in liminal space. Liminal space is when you are between and betwixt and are no longer in control. When your marriage is flat, your job gives you no satisfaction, you’ve lost a loved one, or your health is deteriorating and you cannot do anything about it. That is liminal space and that is when your soul hungers for a ritual to reground it. Speeches, homilies and all the well-intentioned words will not cut it. The soul hungers, in that moment, for ritual. The soul doesn’t know the difference between ritual and reality. Rituals link body and soul. They have the power, when we do them well and when we surrender to them, to change us radically.
Like I said at the beginning, the dominant way for any of us to avoid change —and I include myself —is to go up into our heads, the control tower. In the head, the fragile, desperate ego will do anything and everything to always look good and always be right. That is the hint of what is going on between Jesus and Peter. Jesus is moving towards Peter from a space of soul within him, but from the space of his mind, Peter is resisting with all his might. For Jesus it is more important to be together than to be right. Remember, the ego always has to be right. For Peter, Jesus acting like a servant is not right.
Do you remember the classic forgiveness story in the Gospel of Luke, the Prodigal Son story? In that parable all the father ever wanted was for his two sons to be home with him and share their lives together. That’s it. That is what he delights in. He does not care who was right or who was wrong. He does not care about the money that was wasted and can never be recouped. As a father, he was wronged by both his sons, but he never seeks to scold them or force an apology out of them. Those desires no longer show up on his radar, if they ever did. The only thing on his radar is the desire to be together with his sons. That is why he is the father; he has a wisdom his sons can only hope to grow into some day.
Grandparents whenever they are asked about what they want for Christmas or for their birthday, almost they never mention anything from the material world. Have you noticed? They never mention the car they once drove nor the freedom they may have given up when they turned in their driver’s license. What they want most in life is for their children and grandchildren to be happy and to eat with them around a common table. They would rather be together than to be right. All the squabbles of the past mean nothing compared to the joy of just being together now.
John, the gospel writer, must have been a very old man, perhaps 90, when he finished writing the Gospel of John, if indeed he wrote it at all. I think he did write it for this reason. In the early Church there was lots of bickering about church rules especially when it came to Eucharist. How often should we celebrate Eucharist? Should it be called Eucharist, or Mass, or the Lord’s Supper? Who’s should preside? Who should we invite? Who’s in and who’s out? Which prayers should be included? (Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Church today?). In the midst of it all, John, the old man, writes a gospel and does not put the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead, he has Jesus washing feet, of all things! It is as if John is saying, “Stop the bickering. You want to know what Eucharist is about, then grab a towel and get down on your knees and wash each other’s feet. That’s what it’s all about.”
Such wisdom could only come from an older person, not a young buck. That is why I think John wrote the gospel and nobody else. Like a grandfather, John just knew it was more important to be together than to be right. Where did he learn that from? Jesus, the Master himself.
None of us have ever come to the Eucharist, including tonight, for all the right reasons. On our best day, we all came and still come for mixed motives. The mind excludes on the basis of who’s worthy and who’s not; but the soul delighting in ritual, says, “Come one and come all.”
Fr. Phil Mulligan