This morning I began to intentionally set my mind on the special service my congregation will have this evening. Every Thursday before Easter Sunday we celebrate what we call Lovefeast & Communion. Essentially this is a time to gather for self-examination (confession & assurance of forgiveness), feetwashing, a simple meal around the table together, and finally the Eucharist. This sacred event serves as one of those liturgical practices in the church that reorders our life together in relationship to God through Jesus.
The examination is nothing more than our realization and admittance of our inability to see, hear and live in the way that Jesus taught. It is both a confession of our failures as well as a profession of our faith in Jesus. What this time does is to tenderize our hearts (our desires) in preparation for re-formation. In terms of worship, we are posturing ourselves in submission to God in preparation to give and receive the love and care that exalts Jesus.
Having surrendered ourselves to the reality of our finite and flawed existence in the presence of infinite perfection we take up the towel and basin. There are two points in this part of the ceremony that require more reflection. John 13 begins with Jesus preparing to demonstrate the full extent of his love to his disciples. Now this is meant to be interpreted two ways. One that in the event around the table this will be expressed. And secondly the ultimate expression of this love occurs in his glorification on the cross. Now I’m convinced that we cannot understand the latter interpretation unless we get the former. Often times, chapter 13 is simply interpreted as Jesus providing an example of humble service. I have even heard it used as a means of describing servant leadership. While there may be some aspect of these expressed within this passage, more significantly it represents a living parable of life together as disciples. Jesus is pouring out his love through an act that symbolically washes away sin. There is a definite connection between this cleansing and the cleansing of baptism. However, while baptism primarily attends to the vertical relationship between the Creator and the creation, feetwashing provides the symbol of cleansing of communal brokenness. It is necessary to sit vulnerably open to being washed (confession) by sisters and brothers as well as washing (forgiving) the feet of sisters and brothers. In the church this act is sealed with an embrace (a holy kiss in some congregations) expressing the unity that reconciliation brings.
Once the feet have been washed then the brothers and sisters are prepared to sit at the table and share a simple meal at which they break bread together. This meal not only looks back reflecting upon the last supper, but more significantly looks ahead to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In contrast this is a simple meal (not a literal feast) that is shared remembering that we are living in a world where not everyone has food to eat. It sorrowfully acknowledges those currently suffering, but doing so with full gratitude for the table set before them to share the necessities of life.
Finally, while seated around the table, the brothers and sisters take the bread in their hands, break it together and confess in unison that the bread they break is the body of Christ broken for them. In much the same way, following a blessing they take a cup and with a similar confession drink from the cup. This is followed by a song and a benediction after which some leave to their homes and some remain to clean up.
What I find so significant about this sacred time is that in the mimetic exercise of this drama my “heart” is in some way re-formed. It is not merely an intellectual change of mind. I can experience that by reading a well formed argument. It is far more in that it to some degree transforms my life, my posture, my desire, my attitude. In ways that escape words, I sense that my life becomes a little bit more like that of Jesus. In his little book, Shaped by the Word, Richard Mulholland describes how religious icons are created in a way that moves the mind from the intellect to the affective part of the brain. In this way it changes the perception of the individual in such way as to move beyond trying to control the text to being shaped by it. In much the same way this symbol is iconographic in that it requires us to transition out of the left side of our brain that examines and analyzes to the affective side that becomes open to the formative experience of participation. While my Anabaptist sensibilities resist this terminology, I am convinced that in this way this symbol is sacramental disseminating the loving grace of our Lord Jesus upon the community transforming the current context into the eschatological hoped for community—even if only for a moment.