If you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, you’ll notice that the holiest of holy places in both churches have something in common. The entrance to the shrine, to the heart of the holy (the place marking where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the place symbolizing where he was crucified in Jerusalem)—that place is low. And just to enter in, most people have to stoop a little. You’ve got to lower your head, to bend down in order to enter in.
It’s appropriate, I think, that we need to bend down in order to get close to the holiest truths of our faith because “bending down” is exactly what God is doing in the Incarnation.
In one of his Christmas sermons, St. Bonaventure, that medieval franciscan scholar, was reflecting on the phrase “And the Word became flesh” said this. “These words give expression to that heavenly mystery… that the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.”
Ilia Delio recalls how this image of God’s bending down reminds her of what she used to feel when she would see her baby nephew in his crib. The humility of God is like that, she says, “God is at once the small helpless infant who lies quietly in the crib of the universe, and also the strong one who can raise up a fragile human being and draw that person into the embrace of infinite love. God is Most High and Most Humble.”
We get an up-close look at that graceful gesture of God to bend down to us in tonight’s liturgy.
Think about this for a moment….
Running like a golden thread through legend and saga is the story of the king who walks in the guise of servant or slave. On this night we see the king of kings among us a servant.
- It is Thursday.
- There are now less than 24 hours of freedom remaining to Jesus.
- He has already decided how the last hours will be spent.
- Whatever is done on this evening must be so powerful and universal in its images that it will be inexhaustible in its meaning for generation after generation.
There would be supper. That would be normal and tradition. But there would be something more, something at once utterly simple and utterly profound.
All his life since childhood Jesus had known the story of the king’s feast. He had used it himself to communicate a vision of God’s kingdom that was so central to his whole ministry.
I imagine his mother telling him the story, about how a great king had decided to give a feast. What he had remembered was that the feast was boundless. There was food and drink for all. No one was turned away. All were accepted at the royal table. “Antwone Fisher”, one of my very favorite movies, opens and closes with a beautiful sequence of a table set for all in the middle of our ordinary life.
- That table, more than any other symbol, spoke of the kingdom of God.
- That table with its feast was a symbol of what all human beings and every human society dreams and hopes for –
- a world which is itself such a table
- where all human beings, cherished for their uniqueness and difference are yet completely at one
- where there is justice in the distribution of what is available
- where there is peace.
That night they gathered at a table. The atmosphere was tense. The recent PBS “Last Days of Jesus” depicts it as a challenging strategy meeting. Whatever else was said, everyone in the room knew that events were moving to some ghastly climax. Jesus himself was obviously intensely involved in every word and action of the evening. It was if he knew this opportunity for fellowship would not come again. Years later they would remember this night. Every moment of it engraved on their memories.
- They would remember the strangely ambiguous moment when Judas left.
- They would remember forever the moment he broke the bread and passed it around, and the cup too that followed it.
- There was something deeply reassuring about even the act itself. It seemed to bond them for a brief moment against the darkness beyond.
- They struggled with the possible meaning of what he had said as he began the journey of the loaf and the cup around the table.
- They did not know what it could mean to have the bread as his body and the wine as his blood.
- But for some reason this act was desperately important to him, and he obviously wished it to become of immense significance for them.
- But there was one more thing they would see vividly in their minds eye for the rest of their lives.
At a particular point in the meal Jesus rose, took the rough towel and the water container set by the entrance, and returned to the table. Instead of sitting down, he stripped as if for work and, turning to Peter, bent down and kneeled before him to wash his feet.
Peter’s confusion of emotions was total:
- astonishment, anger
- embarrassment, mingled with and focused in his absolute refusal to allow Jesus to touch him
- Peter’s words were almost angry: You will never wash my feet!
Jesus’ reply was quietly but totally authoritative: “if I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon accepted the foot-washing, as they all did. (There’s something important there about accepting love as well as giving it, but that’s for another sermon.)
The image of our Lord bent over his task in the shadowed upper room has come down the centuries.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” he asks them. And they must have been in shock.
- A rabbi doesn’t sit on the floor.
- A great teacher doesn’t get on her knees.
- And as for God, God is high and mighty,
- demanding and judging,
- untouchable and removed.
“Not true,” Jesus says with his whole being. Not true, at all. That’s not who God is.
- God is humble.
- God comes close.
Jesus shows us, over and over, how God bends down to us no matter how far down we may be
- whether the world has pushed us down,
- whether we’ve fallen,
- or whether perhaps we’ve chosen some way that debases or degrades and takes us under…
- Nevertheless and no matter what, God bends down and meets us.
- God touches, holds,
- soothes, and loves,
- all so that we might be raised with love
- and learn to love – from that experience – how to love one another.
The experience is derived from recognizing our need, our common and equal need for God. But we don’t get that heart stretching (like the Grinch whose heart grew 3 sizes that day) on our own. It is not about our capacity but about God’s bending to us. Teaching us to bend toward one another. Or, as Jesus puts it, to love one another.
That is how we become a community where all men and women, rich and poor, brilliant and mediocre, practical and intellectual, so-called successful and so-called failures, may be at one. What makes us one is our common and equal need for Christ.