We follow Pope Francis to prison on Maundy Thursday.
In 2018, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates in Regina Coeli prison. He told the prisoners that Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet to show that leadership is service: “Those who lead must serve. If so many kings, emperors, heads of state had understood this teaching of Jesus and done this instead of giving orders to be cruel, to kill people, how many wars would not have happened!”
Pope Francis urged the prisoners not to give up hope for there always is the possibility of forgiveness; and even though society discards them, Jesus says: “You are important to me.” And he “takes a risk on each of us.”
Francis got down on his knees to wash the prisoners’, among them two Muslims and a Buddhist. He has in the past washed the feet of non-Christians; and the feet of women.
“I am a sinner but come as Christ’s ambassador,” the Pope told the prisoners. “When I wash your feet, remember that Jesus never abandons you and he never tires of forgiving you.”
At the sign of peace he urged those present to use it as a moment for reconciliation and to think of “those who do not love us” and the people “we would like to take revenge on”.
After Dr Johnson’s exploits yesterday, Sister Johanna has been considering another shared meal among, well, if not enemies, men who were uncomfortable in each other’s company. Unlike Sam Johnson, Jesus was not setting out to be polite in order to let the conversation flow smoothly.
Some gospel passages make me groan. They are the passages where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes, the “professional religious,” with their hypocrisy. Those passages worry me. As a nun, I’m a professional religious, too. I go around in special robes all the time. I’m greeted with respect when I go out – there are plenty of perks that come my way. People are generous and kind just because I claim to belong to God. Do I live up to their expectations? I wonder. So, I always feel implicated when Jesus details the aspects of the Pharisees’ behaviour that are at enmity with the worship of the true God, and with a life that is truly given to God.
At the same time, I groan over each occasion when the religious authorities in the gospels react with defensiveness to Jesus – defensiveness that builds and builds, until it becomes demonic, until it is beyond control, until it has become murderous. As I watch this well-known story play out day by day in my lectio divina, I sometimes wish Jesus had not been so inclined to “stir” the situation with the religious authorities. If the Pharisees often try to trick Jesus with ridiculous questions in order to force him to say something they could use against him, Jesus, too, at times seems to “bait” the Pharisees. One of those times is recorded in Luke 11: 37-38.
Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness.’
This was clearly a set up – by Jesus. Surely, Jesus was aware that in failing to wash before the meal he would be pushing the Pharisee’s buttons. I feel certain that Jesus was just waiting for the Pharisee to express his disapproval. And he does so, but he does it silently. We can say a great deal by body-language, as Jesus well knew. I imagine perhaps one eyebrow slightly raised as Jesus was “eyed” by the Pharisee. I suspect an awkward pause in conversation occurred when Jesus sat down at table, unwashed. Jesus is ready, and jumps in with his spoken criticism as soon as he sees the Pharisee’s unspoken one. Part of me wishes Jesus hadn’t. Jesus could have handled the situation differently from the start, done the done thing, washed his hands, sat down and told a set of inspiring stories, tried to win the Pharisee with a more honeyed approach.
But, Jesus wanted to “stir” it. He wanted to bring the bad feeling out in the open – lance the boil. And, superficially anyway, I’m not comfortable with any of it. Jesus was not an easy dinner-guest: no elephants were ignored in any living room Jesus ever visited. Why? As I ponder this question and reread the text, I gradually become more aware of Jesus’ side of things. I begin to see that for Jesus and his mission, so much was now at stake. I become more aware that Jesus’ hosts were not usually easy for Jesus to be with, either. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner was unwilling to see that the core of religious truth – ‘justice and the love of God’, as Jesus expresses it in this passage – was being eroded by the practices and attitudes the Pharisees espoused. A few minutes later in this scene, the lawyers will also begin to feel attacked, and they say so: ‘Master, when you speak like that you insult us, too’ (11:45). And, instead of backing off, Jesus uses even stronger language: ‘Alas for you lawyers as well, because you load on people burdens that are unendurable….’
This all could have been very different, though. And not primarily because Jesus might have tried to be nicer. No, despite my discomfort, I suddenly realise that I emphatically do not want a nice, compliant Jesus.
What do I want? Let’s ponder this question for a day. What do you want from Jesus? Tomorrow we’ll resume our reflection.
There were not many humans or dogs about the gardens, so their favourite bench, warm in the noonday sun, was ready to receive them. No social distancing for dogs, though T felt there should be, No social chitchat either, as all three ate in silence, their morning’s conversation making them glad once again that they had joined the Expedition to Earth.
‘That was good!’ said T, fending off the gull who seemed to think the fish wrapper was his due. ‘And so is field-work, but we didn’t know that when we started. Why did you two decide to come down to earth?’
‘To be honest’, said Ajax, ‘I do believe I was bored. Not that I knew the word then. But there were no fish and chips, no smells to interpret, no Melba and Noreen. I didn’t know about love or joy but somehow I hoped to find them.’
Alfie was pensive; he had noticed another white hair on his muzzle when he looked into the mirror that morning. ‘I’m getting old, at least about the face. I hadn’t counted on that. Age and death we never gave a thought to; my emotions were almost non-existent. But the expedition sounded like a chance to get out of the pod, fill out a few spreadsheets whilst feeling the sun on my skin, even if it is covered in greasy short hair!’
‘You can have a bath anytime you like,’ suggested T. ‘The tidal pool is not too far away. I’ve a towel and trunks in my bag.’
‘We’ll guard the bag while you swim!’ protested the chihuahuas.
We have not gathered the Little Flowers of Saint Francis for a while. This week’s selection are stories of dreams and visions of certain brothers of the early years of the Order. I knew someone who had a clear dream of angels coming to welcome a dear friend of hers into Paradise; it is perhaps a commoner experience than we imagine that a dream has a message for us; maybe even a dream that barely registers on our conscious mind.
There were two brothers in the Order; the one named Brother Humble and the other Brother Peaceful, the which were men of exceeding great sanctity and perfection; Brother Humble, abode in the House of Soffiano, and there died; and the other belonged to another community at some distance therefrom. Now it pleased God that as Brother Peaceful was at prayer one day in a lonely place, he was rapt in ecstasy, and saw the soul of his brother, Brother Humble, that had just then left the body, going straight up into heaven without either let or hindrance. Many years after, Brother Peaceful was sent to the community in the House of Soffiano, where his brother had died.
About this time the brothers, at the request of the lords of Bruforte, exchanged the said House for another; wherefore, among other things, they carried with them the relics of the holy brothers that had died in that House, and coming to the grave of Brother Humble, his brother, Brother Peaceful took up his bones, and washed them with good wine and wrapped them in a while napkin, and with great reverence and devotion kissed them and wept over them; whereat the other brothers marvelled, and deemed he set them no good example in that it seemed that, albeit a man of so great sanctity, he mourned for his brother, with a carnal and a worldly love; and that he showed more devotion to his relics than to those of the other brothers that had been of no less sanctity than Brother Humble, and whose relics were worthy of as much reverence as his. Brother Peaceful knowing the evil imaginings of the brothers, humbly said unto them: “My brothers most dear, marvel not that 1 have done for the bones of my brother what I have not done for the others for, blessed be God, I was not moved thereto, as ye deem, by carnal love; but so have I done, for that, when my brother passed away from this life, praying in a lonely place and distant far from him, beheld his soul rise straight to heaven, whereby I am assured that his bones are holy and should be in Paradise. And if God had granted me such surety touching the other brothers, then would I have paid the self same reverence unto their bones.” For the which cause, the brothers, seeing his holy and devout intent, were through him well edified, and gave praise unto God, that doeth such marvellous things unto His holy ones, the brothers minor.
Christina has kindly allowed us to use an extract from her book, which we thoroughly recommend; find it on Amazon or through the publisher’s link below. But for now, take a step into her personal desert.
The yearly losses of strength and abilities – lifting up my arms, feeding myself, brushing my own teeth, breathing without labour – these are the hardest things to bear … The circumstances of my life altered my childhood, undermined my teenage years, and rendered me into an adult who is completely dependent upon others for everyday survival. My body has been wracked with the pain of angry weeping, my bones crying out with shuddering grief, and my mind seized with the heartache of my life. And yet …
I am not bitter.
I pine for independence, for a family of my own, and I mourn the physical losses, the sickness, the shortened lifespan. And yet … I am very glad to be here.
Why am I glad? I ask myself. Even I wonder at how I can be the generally content, grateful and joyful person that I am. Over and over I have asked myself why I, cripple that I am, continue to have a deep love for life.
It’s a temptation to take stray verses from the Bible and use them to justify almost any course of action. Try arguing with a doorstep evangelist who has his text to expound, and does not want to engage with verses a little further on! So I’ll offer you this verse from Job (17:9) and invite you to persevere in adversity as Job did, and to remember to wash your hands! And maybe enjoy a read in Job, Esther, or Ruth.
And the just man shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger. Job 17:9
I took advantage of a family holiday in North Wales to read ‘The Summer of the Danes’ by Ellis Peters in the area where the action takes place. Here Brothers Cadfael and Mark arrive at Saint Asaph to be greeted and shown to a room.
‘I’ll send someone with water,’ said their guide … and he was gone.
‘Water?’ said Mark, pondering this first and apparently essential courtesy. ‘Is that by way of taking salt, here in Wales?’
‘No, lad. A people that goes mostly afoot knows the value of feet and the dust and aches of travel. They bring water for us to bathe our feet. It is a graceful way of asking: Are you meaning to bide overnight? If we refuse it, we intend only a brief visit in courtesy. If we accept it, we are guests of the house from that moment.’
Helleth, who comes to do this service, is almost the only woman but a central character in the story of power and piracy, secular and ecclesiastical. Ellis Peters uses 13th Century Wales to explore the role of women in society, love and marriage; war- and peace-making; marriage of the clergy; feudal authority and loyalty; and Welsh identity, all within a page-turning mystery. As so often the book is better than the TV programme. You’ll find it for sale on-line.
One evening on holiday I ended up giving Abel a bit more than a foot wash after he slipped on slimy mud at the seashore, a service gladly given! There are many such little occasions to provide for each others needs.
I trust I’ll be forgiven for using two photos from Amsterdam to accompany GKC’s thoughts on cold showers for the English. These young people were enjoying a public and communal shower-bath in April and sharing their enjoyment with family and friends! And I guess an craftily programmed computer controlled the flow. Social media if not a socialistic institution.
If the Englishman is really fond of cold baths, he ought not to grumble at the English climate for being a cold bath. In these days we are constantly told that we should leave our little special possessions and join in the enjoyment of common social institutions and a common social machinery. I offer the rain as a thoroughly Socialistic institution. It disregards that degraded delicacy which has hitherto led each gentleman to take his shower-bath in private. It is a better shower-bath, because it is public and communal; and, best of all, because somebody else pulls the string.
Baptism is also public and communal, since all Christians are called to be baptised, either as infants or as believing adults and anyone may attend a baptism in a public church. The churches recognise each other’s baptism and do not re-baptise people who were Christened before joining a particular church.
I’ve just been scrubbing my hands after a spot of bicycle maintenance; that and the story of the classic car enthusiast removing every speck of grime from his hands to attend an ordination reminded me of another tale that I heard on the radio a few years ago, before the days of ubiquitous thin rubber gloves.
An Anglican priest, non-stipendiary, meaning he earned his living at another job, as Saint Paul did, was the speaker. I don’t know what his other job was, but it involved getting his hands dirty, the sort of dirt that lodges in the fingerprint whorls and cracks and resists the scrubbing brush. Printer’s ink maybe?
Every Saturday evening this good man would hold his hands in a strong solution of bleach until the residual grime disappeared, ready for Sunday Eucharist. However the result was not good news for his skin.
As I recall the story, his wife intervened, concerned for his health. His hands, she told him, were clean enough to eat with, despite the last ingrained stains, and he was preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Last Supper, a meal with God’s people in his parish; people who knew about his work. They would not be put off by unwashoffable dirt, nor would they expect their priest to contract dermatitis in order to lead them in worship.
He stopped using the bleach. The congregation did not stop coming to Sunday Eucharist. Surely Jesus chose fishermen and a tentmaker as his ministers, but he also chose a man with very dirty hands, the extortionate tax-collector, the future Saint Matthew.
My friend’s husband was of course invited to his sister-in-law’s ordination as an Anglican priest and so was I.
Years had flown, stomachs sagged, hair gone beyond blond, but our handshake was as firm as ever. I looked down at his hand, unnaturally clean, for him. Much of his leisure time before retirement was spent restoring 1950s cars to drive for a while, then sell on. He probably earned about £1 an hour in profit, but he took great pride in his work, which demanded a great deal of practical knowledge not to be learned from books, even the Haynes manuals.
I once spent an afternoon with him, touring the scrapyards of South Staffordshire, looking for a couple of small parts. A manufacturer had tried to save money by substituting plastic for brass in a moving part of the wiper motors. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. My friend was reluctant to buy new motors when he could salvage what he needed for next to nothing.
You see why the clean hand was unnatural. But there are preparations to work into the hands and nails and fingerprints, leaving them looking respectably clean. Half an hour rubbing in green gunge the evening before the ordination and husband and wife were ready to go.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart. Ps 24, 3-4.
Not that he was any less welcome on the mountain of the Lord before applying the heavy duty hand cleaner, but since he was dressed in his best, he had to go the whole hog.
Somehow the original idea for this post slipped away. It was the importance of that small part; important enough for the car to be dangerously incomplete without it. While we should not inflate our sense of self importance, we should remember that the Good Shepherd leaves 99 behind while he looks for the lost one.
Two lessons in one reflection. That’s Agnellus’ Mirror for you!