Today, for those of us who observe the Western Calendar, is Holy Thursday. It is hard to believe Pascha, or Easter, is upon us and our Forty Days of preparation and renewal are coming to a close. Tonight, in our tradition, our priest washes the feet of many of our parishioners. It is done as a symbol, not just as the recreation of the biblical story:
“The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:1-17)
In our tradition, this simple, humbling act is symbolic of the servant’s nature present within our priests, but it is also supposed to remind us that nothing is too humbling or difficult for us to do, when serving our neighbor. Even the Old Testament says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). I have a neighbor who makes it very, very difficult to even be gracious towards him. He is one of those finicky people. His yard, his car, his home, his personal appearance (never a hair out of place) – always perfect. At first, I thought it was me; perhaps we just clash? But no, after having tea with a neighbor, I was told he inserts himself and his wishes for the neighborhood, upon everyone. At least I am not alone! Ha-Ha! He will smile at you, while chastising you for not picking up dog poop often enough, not mowing as often as he does, not trimming your trees back enough (I heard a noise out front one day and there he was, on a ladder, trimming the tree in MY front yard!!). And when I deal with this person, I try very hard to remember the words of Leviticus and to not bear a grudge; to realize this is the way the man is and to always try and bear him good will; and at the very least, a smile. If I cannot manage to love a surly neighbor, how am I supposed to love an actual enemy? And if I cannot love those who hate me, how can I love my Father in Heaven?
Christ preached an important sermon we refer to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” At the very end of this sermon, wherein we get the wonderful Beatitudes, He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 43-48).
From this verse alone, I am called to love my cranky neighbor, as I love myself. I need to pray for him, perhaps to soften his heart. I once commented to him, when he was complaining about us not trimming our bushes (he has to look at them out his window) that, “We will never be good enough for you.” My husband got angry because I said that, and my neighbor’s wife (who is the nicest woman!!) chastised her husband because he was being rather nasty that day. He later, in a way of apology, told me that he often speaks before thinking about what he says and that he means well. He also said this house is a huge investment for him and he wants it to look good all the time. We live on a golf course with no fencing – at all – between our houses (or at the back of them), so you do see everything about your neighbor (I actually keep my blinds closed on that side of the house unless it is a blaringly sunny day, because I feel like I live in a fishbowl!!) and noticing bushes, etc. is an obvious thing to do. I am called to do an over-abundance of prayer for my neighbor; he has no faith life. He asked my husband one time “what” he was, because he saw us leave for Divine Liturgy and Melkite Deacons wear the long habits most people associate with priests or monks, along with some funky hats. It is very noticeable. It was a good conversation and our two families benefited from it; he smiles more these days! And I am hoping we are being a positive example to him of living our faith. And for our part, we are trying to trim bushes more often and get the dog poop that somehow gets too close to his property line! I think we are making progress, albeit slow progress!
As a servant of the Church community, being a Deacon is something that my husband loves so very much. He is happiest at the altar, and as happy serving the people he cares so much for when he can. At our parish, he would remodel the bathrooms, repair the kitchen, and serve the Lazarus Meal we hosted weekly. Being the wife of a deacon is interesting and I love it. In our old parish, it was so very special. The community called me “shamaseea”, which roughly translates to “deacon’s wife.” (Please forgive me if I misspelled the Arabic). The older ladies, especially, would always come up to me and cuddle me and hug me and speak in a language (Arabic) I did not understand, but the translation was not necessary – they appreciated the fact that we were there to serve the community and they appreciated the years of schooling my husband had gone through to serve them, and the sacrifice our family made for them. In our Melkite tradition, you don’t simply just “become” a deacon. If the calling is there, you approach your priest; you attend some meetings with him in the discernment process and learn the extent of your calling. Once the priest is convinced you have the call to be a deacon, he then asks the community, “Is he worthy?” And the community shouts, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” – “He is worthy”! And when the deacon is ordained, as the stole is placed on his shoulders, again the community shouts its approval with, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” What an incredible feeling to know that your community supports you in this service to them. I wept as my husband received his stole and he stood there, amongst the shouts of our community. It is a day I will never forget. One of my favorite photos is of my husband standing with our Bishop and parish priest at his ordination. What a blessing.
Axios! We are all worthy to serve. As our priests wash the feet of their parishioners this evening, as Pope Francis did earlier today in Rome, we are reminded that we are called to serve each other and we are, each of us, worthy of that call. We can serve by helping feed the homeless (or underemployed) as we did at our old parish. I can honestly say it was one of the most humbling, but most exciting things I have ever done. I miss the days of packing up my kids (they were all still at home then) in our Suburban, driving to the local food bank that provided almost no-cost food to homeless kitchens, and loading that suburban to the rafters. We would then drive across town to our parish and unload the car, deciding how we would feed the 100 or more people we would see that evening, with the food we had just bought. I loved the preparation with all the Arab ladies in the kitchen; I even loved the clean up afterwards! We laughed and they told stories in their broken English and it is a treasured memory for me. After we prepared the meal, we welcomed those waiting in line to get in (sometimes it was overwhelming, the number of people who needed our meal) and then we would seat them just like at a restaurant, and then serve them. We enlisted the local Catholic High School to help us as a service project for their kids, and each week dozens of teens came to serve the poor and homeless. Afterward, we would walk to the Church itself and have Vespers. We were sweaty (SoCal is hot most of the time) and stinky, but felt so very good at the labor and effort we had just put forth, to serve our community. Quite often we had the poor and homeless join us for prayer, just to see what we were all about. I miss that ministry the most out of moving up here! This operation was small in comparison to many out there. We survived on donations from our parish, and the generous people at the food bank. But we “fed” our neighbors, none of whom were Melkite. We even got the Coptic Church involved, and they would come once a month and prepare Egyptian food for the homeless. It was a glorious thing to see. There are so many, many opportunities just like that, if we but look around and notice the needs of our neighbor! Sometimes it is praying with someone, or a conversation; sometimes it is assisting the elderly; sometimes it is donating instead of selling our old things; sometimes it is just noticing someone who is hurting and quietly offering a prayer for them.
I think the lesson I take from Holy Thursday is that it is up to me to be the difference in the world around me. If I affect, in a positive way, every person I bump into along my day, I have made great strides for the Kingdom of God. I may be the only “Jesus” a particular person sees that day, or ever. Up here, where we live, less than 6% of the population is churched, so it is a distinct possibility! I am called to roll up my sleeves and assist when I see a need. Think how the world would change if we all washed the feet of our neighbor! Do not be afraid of the thief who comes in the night (cf John 10:10 or Luke 12:1-7) but rather afraid of our own indifference to the suffering of our neighbors. Holy Thursday is the beginning of an intense three days (the Holy or Easter Triduum) culminating with the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter. What a wonderful contemplation of service to our neighbor, to begin these Holy Days! Praise be to God!