On Washing, Wiping, and the Depth of Glory
Let me begin with a warning for the reader: My purpose in this post is to praise the depth of divine condescension in a way that eschews politeness. And in so doing, I’m going to talk about poop. You have been warned.
My four-year-old is now daytime potty trained. This is a huge accomplishment for him and a great relief to his father and mother. Increasingly, he doesn’t even need help finishing up in the bathroom. I am so proud of my son. In a way, his accomplishment— along with his fluent speech and gaining dexterity—symbolizes his accession to rational personhood. And this, believe it or not, rather reminds me of our Lord Jesus.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you. For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (Jn 13:3-14)
At least in the evangelical world where I have my being, it is obligatory, when preaching this passage, to mention that footwashing was a humiliating task—reserved in the ancient world to the lowest servant in the house—and that, due to the coincidence in the ancient near east of sandals and open sewers, feet were disgusting. Jesus’s humility is therefore to be marveled at by the congregation, and the mystery of salvation communicated in the act of footwashing to be glimpsed. But like the cross itself, the horror of footwashing is a bit too easily turned into gorgeous wall paintings, replaced century by century as the renaissance, baroque, rococo and modern each add a little more blood or dirt in an attempt to renew the scandal thereof.
So let me try again. My son, until very recently, needed me to wipe his butt. If I did not wipe his butt, he had no part in me. For me, this was an act of humility, an act of love, but sometimes, I confess, a grudging act tinged with disgust. For him, to submit to this indignity was increasingly frustrating, and as his ability to take care of his own needs increases, so too does his pride in being a big boy. Now he commonly dismisses me from the bathroom, telling me, “I don’t need help. I need privacy.” And it’s true. He doesn’t need help (usually).
My favorite moment in Jonathan Franzen’s masterpiece of a novel, The Corrections, comes at the end when the protagonist—a dignified, self-contained midwesterner losing his health to age and his mind to Alzheimer’s—finally finds himself powerless to conceal his decline, and is discovered by his adult daughter lying on his back on a rubber sheet, unable, because of his failing mobility, to give himself the enema he requires. She intervenes to help and he is angry, but helpless. In his confusion, he repeats what for me has become an immortal line: “I never meant to involve you.”
The line stands not just for his present indignity, but for the entirety of his aloof, self-sufficient life. And yet, love involves us. Like my son, I am proud of being a big boy. Like Peter, I am guilty of saying to our Lord, “you shall never wash my feet.” Like Lucifer, I want my relationship with God to be peer-to-peer, so that we are friendly, but self-contained. And I confess that sometimes I bring an awful mess to him in prayer and want to say, “I never meant to involve you.”
It is difficult to imagine an uplifting wall painting of someone assisting an old man with an enema, but if any age could have managed it in an atmosphere of true and sincere piety, it would surely have been the middle age. St. Francis was known to insist upon taking humility to this undignified, unsanitary level. Of course he washed the brothers’ feet, but he also delighted in serving lepers, and towards the end of his life was tormented with disfiguring, undignified ailments of his own, even meekly suffering his face to be cauterized with a hot iron in an attempt to cure an eye disease. Francis’s performative, almost theatrical humility was his submission to Jesus’s invitation to have his feet washed, and his obedience to the exhortation to wash the feet of others. The awful closeness of weakness, sordidness, and death, the smell that shocks the rich when they deplane in a hot, poor country, was for him and many other medieval Christians a happy reminder of his constant dependence on the Crucified Lord.
Francis also furnishes me with the happy thought that Jesus didn’t enjoin a false dependence on the disciples, as when my son, weary of doing for himself, asks me to wipe. We cannot wash away our own sins and raise ourselves to new life. No. But what honest person, reading the passage above, could ignore that Peter was to wash his own hands and face, and in future, wash his brothers’ feet? Classical theology, in a phrase the Reformers also used, though grudgingly, called this “cooperating grace.” We do not participate in our own salvation before we have been saved by grace through faith; that’s Pelagianism. Neither do we participate in our own salvation apart from grace after we have been saved. That’s not a thing. Even Pelagius would have rejected such a notion. Is it not wonderful that even the heretic of human effort never conceived of the Christian life as gradually attaining independence from grace? And yet we are all constantly tempted to think this way. It is the doctrine of Lucifer: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High (Isa 14:14). I will be a big, big boy.
Depending on God by being interdependent with others doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Francis made it. It occurs to me now that my son’s need for his mother and I, albeit waning a bit, will grow again when he has to make his first adult decisions, then wane again. And then at length will come the true test of humility, when our limbs and wits falter and we must place ourselves in his hands to share our weakness and indignity. To do this intentionally, to love and submit oneself to being loved, despising shame, is sometimes called “the mortification of the flesh” by people who have no idea what they sound like to others. I prefer an earthier vocabulary to go with the earthiness of the subject, and I will probably continue to grumble and swear about it. None of this will be easy, but my God! Isn’t it wonderful? We will make it, because we are never expected to outgrow grace.
Aaron Gies, PhD, is an independent researcher in the theology of the early University of Paris, particularly as it was expressed through the medium of biblical commentary. Alexander of Hales: On the Significations and Exposition of the Holy Scriptures, his English translation of a recently-edited early Franciscan hermeneutical manual, will be published this fall by Franciscan Institute Press. He loves late-night jam sessions with his wife, “run-rides” with his son, and deciphering gothic manuscripts on the front porch of their Columbia, SC home with only coffee for company. He’s Presbyterian and Evangelical, but does all his best writing in monasteries.