By Brian Stiller
RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS ARE IMPORTANT. THEY LINK
Christians have many symbols: fish, bread, the cup, a dove, the cross, a pillar of fire, a rainbow. All of these are reproduced in many styles and shapes, adorning an ear, the spire of a cathedral, a car bumper, a letterhead.
The cross, the most famous of all Christians symbols, is, ironically, a symbol of beauty today. At the time Christ experienced it, however, it was the worst of all realities, representing unbelieveabletorture at the hands of the Romans. Who today would sport around one’s neck a miniature guillotine? For the Christian, the symbol of our salvation is not so much the cross but, rather, the empty tomb.
But there is another symbol Jesus gave as a reminder of His life. It’s one that has been studiously ignored.
Jesus and His disciples were celebrating the Passover supper. Exactly 1,524 years earlier on that very night, the fathers of Jewish families living in Egypt carefully sprinkled blood on the doorposts of their homes. That night the angel of death would take the eldest son from every family not protected by the blood.
As Jesus and His disciples gathered, the sun was quickly dropping over the western hills. They walked up the steps to their ritual supper in the upper room. Memories of the first Passover filled Jerusalem. Thousands had gathered from surrounding villages and countries for this high holy day.
When they walked into the prepared room, a table was spread with the feast, surrounded by cushions. The rich aroma of freshly baked bread blended with the sweet fragrance of roasted lamb. Hungrily, each broke off crisp pieces of unleavened bread and dipped them dishes of hot, bitter herbs. The roast lamb quickly disappeared along with gulps of wine.
The dinner was festive. They joked and bantered back and forth. Then Peter noticed Zealot. “This underground movement is getting ready to kick these Romans out once and for all”
That spark lit a fuse. Soon angry words bounced off the walls. The conversation shifted to the most contentious of all: When the new kingdom was established, who would get the prime assignment? Like the shadow cabinet of the opposite party, relishing the day it would rule, the disciples positioned themselves for their day of power.
Jesus said nothing. His body language was devoid of ridicule or contempt. The animosity and greed were so intense that they had forgotten about him. Without a word, He dropped His tunic and mantle, wrapped a towel around His waist, walked to the wash stand, picked up a bowl of water and started at the end of the table.
It took a moment for the disciples to notice. Conversation stopped. Intrigue turned into silent embarrassment. The contrast between the disciples’ self interest and Jesus’ servant role was apparent to even the most egocentric among them.But Jesus knew what He was doing. The feet of His disciples would carry the Gospel to the out posts of the World–Rome, Africa, Asia Minor, India, Europe.
A hush filled the room. Discomfort cooled the hot heads. Jesus had said, “The first shall be last,” some remembered–too late. All eyes looked for some vacant spot; no one wanted to look at another.
It was more that Peter could take.”Never…!” he said.
“If I do not wash you, you have no part of Me,” Jesus replied.
First flushed with anger, then humiliated, excited and now rebuked, Peter thundered, “Peter thundered, “Not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
The washing finished, Jesus slipped into His clothes and lay back on the cushions. A pensive mood hung over the room. No one dared speak. Like children caught smoking behind the barn, they waited.
Finally Jesus asked, “Do you know what I have done?”
In the moment, Jesus had provided a symbol of His role — a symbol rejected then and today — but one that would topple the mighty power of Rome and break the resistance of cultures and hearts: the towel. The weakest of all became the most powerful. This was paradoxical because, as the disciples understood it, power is compelling, wheras servantthood is demeaning.
Jesus didn’t provide us with this symbol to impress the powerful or the mighty. He doesn’t put into our hands the same weapons of warfare used by the armies of culture, government or ideologies. Instead of a sword He gives us a towel.
There is no mistaking His intention: “If I, then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave an example in order that you also should do as I did to you.”
We laud sports figures who win through their brawn and might. We celebrate the victories of Christian politicians who win elections. We love moments of praise and worship in our churches. But when have you celebrated the calling of Christ by washing one another’s feet?
Along with all the symbols we accumulate, hang around our necks or emboss on our Bibles, maybe it’s time we remembered the towel.