Tuesday, March 30, 2010

About the washing of his disciples' feet

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. - John 13:3-5

Humility was good enough for God; how can it be less so for us? He had all power and all authority, yet we see him lying as a babe in a manger. We see him, rightly called Lord and Master, washing the feet of his disciples, in the place of the lowest of servants. We see him obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. And may it never cease to shock.

“Service Men” first appeared in the June, 2005 issue of Touchstone.

Service men

Robert Hart on Men Who Are Not Savages

When I was a young man, I tried to make money by selling (I was never any good at it). Once, as I was going through paperwork with a customer after having closed a sale—a rare experience for me—the man began to pour forth the strangest piece of boasting I have ever heard. “I told my wife that if she becomes pregnant, she is on her own. I’m leaving.” He said this with no apparent sense of shame.

Having just married my wife and in those days going through the process of adopting her child who had been conceived by rape, I wanted very much to tell him about the duties of being a man, but I remained silent and finished the paperwork. He went home, probably thinking that the average guy approved of his attitude. To this day, I wish I had been strong enough to show my disapproval.

The Common Man

His kind of “man” is not as rare as we would like to think. One of the ministries I have tried, at which I was not very good, is sidewalk counseling. A group of us would stand outside of abortion mills and try to talk the pregnant mothers into seeking the alternatives. Many times I saw very brave and compassionate Christians try to save the lives of unborn children, and to save their mothers from the harm they were bringing on themselves.

The problem was that most of the time we could not talk to the women. (Did I say women? Most of them were girls.) The overwhelming number of them came with either a parent or a boyfriend. A funny thing: I never saw a woman, head held high, proudly walking in and exercising her “right to choose.” I saw young women being bullied by their keepers, strong-armed into making a “choice” to kill, vulnerable women who saw, under pressure, no other way.

When our people were able to talk to someone, it was to those expectant mothers who had, as we would later hear, been praying that God would give them a way out before it was too late. These were also the few who did not have their keepers dragging them in and fighting us off.

One woman who came alone listened to me, but I simply could not keep her from entering the facility and carrying out the execution of her baby. She did not want to go in there, and was clearly in distress. But she said to me that she had no choice; she did not want to kill her child, but her husband insisted that she had to do this thing because they simply could not afford to care for a baby.

She had to know what pure nonsense that argument really was. To this day I cannot help but wonder if I was speaking to the wife of my customer from years before, the one to whom I did not say anything.

I cannot count how many times, in the course of working to aid poor hospital patients, I have been in a home that consisted of a visibly unhappy mother and several children, half-siblings, each with a different last name inherited from a stranger, innocent bastards all (and a bastard is not so much an illegitimate child as a victim of illegitimate parents). These “families” are always in a state of crisis.

The mothers account for the household income by telling me how many of the fathers are paying child support—that is, most of the time—and how many never have. Most of them, in my vast experience, never have, or rarely do. It is very easy to fault the men who neglect their responsibilities; but the women, too, have often confessed to me their unwillingness to have a traditional family. They were not free in their own minds to accept the natural hierarchy of family life.

Some may have refused because the men in their lives had abused or neglected them, so they could not be expected to know what real masculinity is about, much less to expect or demand it. In any case, the men currently in their lives were not able to shoulder the responsibility of fatherhood. Others may have refused because they have accepted an egalitarian ideology that demands the impossible, an unnatural existence in which a woman is bound to refuse the natural authority, and therefore the service, of a man as head of his family.

Fearful Service

Why do so many fear a life in which the man rules and serves for the good of his wife and children? Men of today fear it as much as women. Why?

Because they are not Christians, or, if Christians, because they do not see the world as Christianity sees it. Outside of the Christian understanding, authority is simply power. Nothing in the world is able to convert power into something beautiful and gracious. We need the doctrine of the Incarnation to save our souls, yes, but also to train the powerful to honor humility and to care for the weak—to be civilized in the Christian sense.

Many people can only understand the world in terms of conflicting centers of power. Women exercise power by granting life or inflicting death upon their children by the alleged right of choice. And men exercise power by demanding and receiving sexual pleasure with no obligations and responsibilities, no calling to provide and protect and serve. The result is a kind of equality, but one in which women are relegated to a role of sexual servitude and not honored and protected in recognition of their status, and children are not protected in honor of their natural frailty, and men are not real men.

What is missing is the understanding of that combination of leadership and servanthood which is a uniquely Christian concept, uniquely Christian because it is rooted in the Incarnation. In seeing that Christ came not to be served but to serve, we see a revolution. It overthrows principalities and powers, using the appearance of weakness and foolishness, both God’s very own by the Cross (1 Cor. 1:22–25). So, too, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church, giving his life for it” (Eph. 5:25).

This laying down of life in the service of love is the role of the husband, and it is the true nature of authority from the perspective of the Cross. In the natural hierarchy of family life, I express my authority by choosing to render service in ways that include such simple things as opening the car door for my wife (and how strange it looks to passersby). Something as simple as opening a door she could easily open for herself is the result of centuries in which a culture has been transformed by the prevailing belief that unto us a child is born whose Name is the Mighty God.

Do we see the revolution inherent in Christ’s humility with the same clarity with which the ancients saw it? After centuries of Christian civilization, we expect everyone to behave in an unassuming and humble manner, if only for appearance’s sake. We are not shocked by the Lord and Master girding himself in a towel to wash the feet of his disciples; we would instead be shocked by anyone, absolutely Anyone, behaving as though he deserved preferential treatment, or a place of honor. Yet, somehow in our expectation of how people should behave, we have overthrown the essence of humility by divorcing it from its context.

Screwtape’s Democracy

We are returning to something more “natural,” more egalitarian, and, in time, perhaps truly savage. It appears that unashamed raw power is beginning to assert itself, and the idea of subduing one’s natural strength in order to serve the weaker is becoming archaic. Can we no longer see that power cloaks itself in humility by becoming service, and that authority takes the lowest place at the feast by its own gratuity? No one is permitted to humble himself anymore, but instead must be humbled from without. Expectations demand it. It is democratic in Screwtape’s sense. It is egalitarian.

If we recognize no Lord and Master who, by his own example, taught humility and service in all their inherent beauty, we will not be shocked by the girding with the towel and washing of the feet. But we will be immune to shock for all the wrong reasons. From henceforth it is expected, it is demanded, that any seemingly exalted Person must wash those feet, not to set the example of humility born of love, but to teach himself a lesson, that no one is better than anyone else. The beauty of gratuitous self-humbling is lost when we impose lowliness on every genuine position of honor. Is there no room, then, for service from the heart?

A major factor in our rise to Christian civilization, the subsuming of power by the powerful, the idea that the strong should serve the weak, did not come from the imagination of fallen man. It came in consideration of the Christ, “who though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, that ye, through his poverty, might become rich.” Without the One who did not grasp his equality with God, but made himself a servant, even the smallest expression of service by the simple good manners of deferential treatment seems a mere folly.

Humility was good enough for God; how can it be less so for us? He had all power and all authority, yet we see him lying as a babe in a manger. We see him, rightly called Lord and Master, washing the feet of his disciples, in the place of the lowest of servants. We see him obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. And may it never cease to shock.

In the world of faith, the stronger and more powerful give themselves to others, willing to be spent, all for love. Men love the women and the children under their care. They shoulder responsibility that turns authority into the work of a servant, and the work of a servant into authority. Jesus Christ tells us to humble ourselves as this little child, to take the lowest place.

All good manners were born here. All hierarchies are here not only made bearable but made glorious. Humility and service come from without, from above, from the One who is “high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens . . . Who dwelleth on high. Who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and on the earth.”


RC Cola said...

Ironic flashback.

When I was a kid women in the parish started demanding that they be among the 12 who get their feet washed on Maundy Thursday.

That must be the new definition of humility: demanding that the man acting in persona Christi wash their feet so everyone can see they are equal.

Canon Tallis said...

For those who despise the Elizabethan Settlement, it is to be noted that Elizabeth I continued the old custom washing the feet of her subjects on this day and giving them gifts so they might remember the work of our Lord.

I don't believe that either priests or deacons are required to perform this act, now outside the prayer book tradition, but I rather think that is much more important that they serve both their people and the Church by being the servant and protector of same rather than attempting to Lord it over them. We all need real humility and love and not the artifice of same. If you promised something at the time of your ordination, such as the keeping of the "doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church" consider actually doing that rather than chasing after an ecclesiastical fantasy.