I waited, I waited for the Lord
and he stooped down to me;
he heard my cry.
One of the Lenten practices adopted by our monastic community is group lectio divina. Once a week during Lent, all the monks gather in respective groups of about 10 apiece to prayerfully read, meditate on, and discuss the coming week’s Gospel passage. It is an edifying and spiritually fruitful experience to hear and share one another’s insights.
A couple of weeks ago, as my group was discussing John 8:1-11 (the woman caught in adultery), I was struck by a particularly keen observation by a young novice (as St. Benedict says, the “Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”).
Novice Timothy noted Jesus’ bodily postures in the passage, noting how "down to earth" Jesus is:
-- “He sat down and taught [the people].”
-- “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground” when the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to him and questioned him about her.
-- “Again he bent down and wrote on the ground” after having straightened up to tell the crowd “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
-- After the crowd had filed away, “Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Jesus, the Son of God, literally stooped down to flawed human beings and sinners to teach them and free them, not condemn. Can you imagine him squatting on the ground, allowing you to stand above him as he speaks, or simply listens to what you have to say? Is this the suspicious, ever-watchful, accusing, wrathful God so many of us mistakenly imagine and fear? In this passage, as throughout the Gospels, out of love God lowers himself in Jesus to restore the dignity that sin has stripped from us.
That’s all he wants for us, and cost is no object, as indicated by the Mass readings during this Holy Week. For the most part, they have focused on the ancient prophecies of Isaiah foretelling the coming of God’s suffering servant who will save the children of Israel.
“A bruised reed he shall not break,” Isaiah tells us. “I gave my back to those who beat me,” yet “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings he endured, while we thought of him as stricken. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”
And tonight at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for Holy Thursday, we recall again God’s self-sacrificing love for us as demonstrated through posture. After hearing in the first reading from Exodus how the children of Israel stood during the Passover meal to eat the slaughtered lamb in front of them, we listen to the account of the washing of the disciples’ feet from the Gospel of John. Jesus, the Son of God, does something that even the lowliest slaves of the time did not do. He ties a towel around his wait, stoops down in front of each of his disciples, and washes their feet.
By doing this, Jesus alludes to the crucifixion that awaits him, but which cleanses and frees us—just as the slaughtered lamb at Passover saved the children of Israel in Egypt. “Do you realize what I have done for you?” he asks. The question is just as pertinent—more so, even—to us today. “As I have done for you, you should also do,” he then tells us.
To press this image into our hearts, after the homily tonight during the Mandatum, our abbot—who holds the place of Christ in the monastery—will stoop down to wash the feet of several monks and guests, including those of Novice Timothy.
Then, monks and guests will proceed to the altar, where we will commemorate the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, recalling the words of St. Paul in the second reading: “Jesus took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
God stoops down to us, allows himself to be broken and shared among us, so that we who are so broken may together become the whole Christ, blessed and shared with all.
To stoop down means to bend down, to lower oneself, to condescend, to yield, to submit. It is to willingly become small in order to provide another dignity. Our Incarnate God debases himself, becoming an infant sleeping in a feeding trough, a man crucified as a common criminal, and seemingly ordinary bread to be broken and eaten. His is the “chastisement that makes us whole.”
And so, like the woman caught in adultery, we are raised up, we are restored to dignity by having our feet washed by the Master, who asks “Do you realize what I have done for you?”
The answer, once claimed, is the true source of Easter joy, and is what provides peace and everlasting life.
One can do no better than reflect on the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“When the Lord of the world comes and undertakes the slave’s task of foot-washing—which is an illustration of the way he washes our feet all through our lives—we have a totally different picture. God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us so as to exalt us. The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be small. Only when power is changed from the inside, and we accept Jesus and his way of life, whose whole self is there in the action of foot-washing, only then can the world be healed and the people be able to live at peace with one another.”
May our good and gracious God grant to all this peace.
A most Holy Triduum and Joyous Easter season to all.