Since marrying into a semi-Jewish family, this week is no longer just Holy Week but also Passover. The two stories are intertwined in the events of the Last Supper, memorialized at Tenebrae services tonight.
In the middle of the Seder Jesus gets up, takes off most of his clothes, and starts washing his students’ feet. (I’m trying to think of a modern equivalent – maybe if an important professor stopped in mid-lecture, put on a janitor’s uniform, and began cleaning toilets.)
Some of the students accept this without protest, but Simon Peter says, “This is crazy, I’m not letting you wash my feet.” But Jesus insists.
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.
Quakers are ostensibly opposed to hierarchy, but being humans, they still manage to work it in. The seats in most meetings face inward to a circle or square rather than facing up to an altar or priest. But there’s a “facing bench”, which is where the older and more important Quakers traditionally sit.
At Pendle Hill I always carefully avoided sitting on the facing bench. I told myself this was because I didn’t want to support a hierarchy. I had been taught that hierarchies are maintained by those in power, so if I was at the bottom I couldn’t be supporting it. But eventually I realized I was intentionally maintaining a low status not because anybody was forcing me, but because it allowed me a kind of superiority. I could think, “I know my place. I’m good at being humble. Those other people who sit on the facing bench without enough status are bad at being humble, and I can look down on them because they’re not adhering to their proper role.”
By deciding who could and could not take a high-status seat, I was maintaining the hierarchy. So I began sitting on the facing bench sometimes to show that young people could do it too.
When Simon Peter gets upset about his teacher taking a low-status role, he’s posturing as the good disciple, more dedicated to his teacher’s high status than the others. But Jesus comes back with (at least) two messages: first, his usual “I’m trying to turn the hierarchy on its head.” And also, “Stop struggling and let me do this for you. Let me serve you. I’m teaching you how to be good servants, but I’m also teaching you how to be served.”
It took me a while to realize that accepting things people offered me was more polite than saying no. I’m still too prickly sometimes, too proud, too unwilling to accept help or comfort. And that’s why I love this story. It reminds me: “Open yourself. Lay down your pride. Accept what is freely offered.”