The roads are dusty and dirty. Donkeys and horses, pigs and sheep, shepherds and fishermen have walked these roads—and left their mark. So have the twelve men arriving to dinner, the ceremonial Passover meal.
They enter the dining room to a table set low and surrounded by cushions to soften their seat on the floor. With a setup like this, feet and food are in uncomfortable relationship. The savory scents of lamb and herbs mingle with the sweaty smells of sandals.
This will never do. And so a slave or servant will be called for, to crouch down undignified on the ground and wash the waste and filth from the feet of those at dinner. So repulsive is this task that, legally, even a slave can refuse it.
Perhaps that’s what happened today. Perhaps these twelve friends were just too filthy for the servants to handle. Or maybe the servant girl was pregnant, unable either to crouch on the floor or to stand the smell of it. I certainly wouldn’t blame her.
In any case, no lowly foot washer arrives, and instead the unthinkable happens: Jesus, the teacher, the Lord and Master, rises from his cushion and brings the basin and towel. Stooping before Peter, he begins a task too humble and undignified even for unwilling slaves.
Soul Inspiring Practices for Moms
Peter is rightly aghast. Skirting away from Jesus’ towel-clad hand, he renounces even the idea of his Lord washing his putrid feet.
But Jesus continues to wash and pronounces a new reality of the Kingdom: Anyone who would associate with Jesus must accept this service. And then, having been served in such a humbling way, they are to go out and do the same to others.
Maybe Jesus’ foot washing shouldn’t have been so shocking, in hindsight. There was foreshadowing, certainly. Jesus crouching in the road, mixing dirt into mud with his own saliva, serving sight to a presumed-guilty blind man. Jesus placing his hands on lepers, changing his plans to accommodate the sick and worried.
He started the day with a lineup of needs that stretched never-ending: touching the sick, welcoming children, casting out demons, catching fish, feeding folks who forgot to bring their own lunch.
Just as I sneak away from my children, hoping to find a hidden corner and five minutes’ peace, Jesus made his own escapes to quiet places. Just as my kids sniff out my hiding place, so Jesus’ followers tracked him down, too. He knew the irritation of being awoken from sleep to meet yet another need, ease another anxiety, calm another storm.
Jesus, Son of God and Word made flesh, taught us, showed us with his own two hands, aching back, and cracking knees.
If meeting an onslaught of his children’s physical needs day after day wasn’t a waste of time for the Lord during the height of his short earthly ministry, mustn’t he value our own exhausting days serving the children he gave us?
If God came to earth in the position of a servant, must he not deeply value service?
Mothers serve their families in all manner of dirty and undignified positions, willingly taking on a workload so extensive and ongoing you could never hire someone to do it. To meet the unquenchable thirst of our children’s needs, we empty ourselves again and again.
“I have nothing left.” We have all said this at one time or another, even if no one was around to hear it. The services we perform as mothers bring us to the end of ourselves, often without support. Nothing left to feed myself, nothing left to give to God. No one around to pick us up off the floor.
And yet it is here, at this broken, depleted moment, that motherhood is most powerfully a spiritual practice. The goal of spiritual disciplines is to bring us to this place, to the place where we have lost everything but God. In this deep emptiness we must cast ourselves upon him and wait on him, for we have nothing else, no other hope.
In motherhood we are not furthest from the practices of faith as it seems, but at the center. In this spiritual desert we touch the very pinnacle of spiritual practice.
You’ve been reading from Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline by Catherine McNiel, a post originally shared on The Disciple-Maker Blog. Check out the latest from Catherine at catherinemcniel.com.