Thursday, April 21, 2011

Love's absurd logic (Reflections on Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet, Holy Thursday, John 13:1-15)

It has got to be one of the oddest things about the Gospel of John that the passages we just read, which contain the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, are the opening passages of the section called the “Book of Glory”.

Now you would think that a title like that would be more about Christ’s rising from the dead. And yet the “Book of Glory”, while containing the resurrection, is really an account of Christ’s suffering, passion, and death.

Why wasn’t it called the “Book of Suffering” then? Why the “Book of Glory”? It seems a contradiction, or at the least, a paradox. For how can suffering be equated with “glory”? And is there anything “glorious” about “washing feet” or “dying on a cross”?

But that is our faith—one full of paradoxes, seeming contradictions, even absurdities. It proclaims a God who becomes man, a God who suffers and dies, a powerful God who wins people over, not by force but by service, a God who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten, and a God who dies in order that all might live.

And in tonight’s gospel, he is a God who stoops down, gets down on his knees and washes feet, his disciples feet—our feet.

In a world that proclaims the glory of power, money, fame, fortune, position, title, authority and control—the God that we encounter tonight is a God who does what only a servant will do—the exact opposite of what the world expects.

The God we Christians proclaim is a God of contradiction. And his single greatest contradiction is perhaps—as the late Pope John Paul II calls it—the “contradiction of the cross”.

Teaching at a university in the States a few years ago, the only student who got a straight A in my theology and philosophy classes one semester was a devout Muslim girl who wore a hijab to school. The rest got A minuses and B pluses. She was bright, hard-working, and widely read. What was even more amazing though—both for myself as well as for the other students in class—was that she seemed to know more about Jesus, the bible, the church, than most of the other students who were Christians and Catholics.

I had many wonderful conversations with her, during class and afterwards. While being a devout Muslim, she was very open and progressive in her thinking. But one thing I remember she told me she believed goes against every acceptable canon of logic and reason is the idea that the God we worship suffers and dies on the cross. “God cannot die. God cannot suffer. God is God,” she would say.

“God cannot die. God cannot suffer. God is God”. And yet here we are—beginning our celebration of the God who suffers and dies for us, who took on the role of servant for us, whose “glory” is the exact opposite of how the world understands what “glory” means. Are we celebrating an anomaly then? Are we celebrating an illogical and irrational belief?

The cross, as the bible tells us was a “scandal to the Jews” who believed in an almighty God, and “a stumbling block to the Greeks” who had no time for what was illogical and irrational.

But is it really illogical and irrational? Perhaps it is.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young nun named Teresa who left the security of her convent in Albania to care for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and the rest of the world. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a bishop in El Salvador named Oscar Romero who chose to live his life in solidarity with the poor and was eventually martyred for it; perhaps it’s as illogical and irrational as an American nun in Peru named Dorothy Stang, who was murdered because of her work for human rights and the protection of the environment.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young man and woman who choose to get married rather than simply doing what so many young couples do today, who choose not to because of fear of life-long commitment. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young husband and wife who choose to have children instead of living only for themselves. Perhaps it is as illogical as a mother or father who has sacrificed great amounts of time, energy and resources to raise a family.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as one of my former students at Providence College in Rhode Island, who after graduation, and being offered a very good job, chose instead to work for a shelter for troubled young girls in New York city. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as the young men I’ve taught in seminary these many years, who have struggled to bid farewell to the ways of the world and instead bind themselves steadfastly to following Christ who has asked them to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him”.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as any of one of us here tonight who does his or her best to be true to his faith, his values, principles and ideals at whatever cost—amidst a world that knows only cynicism, skepticism, and ridicule.

Where indeed is the logic and reason in all that? The answer is that it has a logic and reason all its own. Mother Teresa once called it “the absurd logic of love”.

“The heart has reasons which reason does not know”, the philosopher Blaise Pascal once said. At the heart of our faith as Christians, and at the heart of our ritual tonight, is a reason and logic so profound, the world will never understand it.

“As I have done, so must you”. As Christ has served, so must we. As he has loved, so must we. Loving service alone is what tonight’s ritual means.

If we are to ask, Where is the “glory” in that? then we still don’t get it. If we fail to see the connection between serving others and true glory—then like the world—we too fail to understand.

“Do you realize what I have done for you?” Jesus asks each one of us.

“You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet”.

“I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also should do”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)