Every year, I find myself struck by a sense of strangeness over the Triduum: it is such an extraordinary time for the Church, and yet the days often still feel very ordinary. Many people still go to work as usual on Holy Thursday and Good Friday; many children still have school. It is easy to overlook the liturgical significance of the season when deadlines persist and dinners still need to be cooked.
In fact, it’s easy to forget that this was Jesus’s last ordinary day, too. The last day, really, where things went as might be expected: Jesus woke up, he prepared for Passover, he celebrated with those he loved. Yes — Jesus knew what was coming, and yes, Jesus was preparing himself for what lay ahead, the cup he prayed to pass, if only it be God’s will. But no one around him knew. Or at least, not in John’s gospel, which provides the reading for this evening (it could be different, for example, with Mark’s nameless woman who washes and anoints Jesus’s feet).
Still, despite the awareness Jesus had of what was to come, his disciples had no idea. They woke up that morning thinking — “it’s another Passover.” Food had to be prepared. Guests were coming; feet were to be washed. It is easy, given the importance and rarity of the footwashing that we will celebrate tonight, to forget how rote these practices were. The significance of the footwashing and the breadbreaking that we celebrate today is not that they were extraordinary. The significance is that they were ordinary.
Such is how Jesus spent his last full day: showing love to those around him in ordinary ways. Jesus showed the same love to his disciples as we show when offering a glass of water to a guest. The same love as tying a child’s shoe when the lace is undone. The same love as offering a share of our fries when out grabbing burgers with friends.
I offer these examples not to minimize the love that Jesus has shown us. If anything, I want to show how all-encompassing it was, embodied in actions we might overlook as insignificant. “I give you a new commandment;” says Jesus, “love one another as I have loved you.” What does it mean to recognize Jesus’s love in the ordinary? A love that begins with a towel, with the touch of cool water on feet made hot by shoes and sun. None of this was new to the disciples; what was new was the face looking back up at them.
What made this ordinary action suddenly extraordinary was that it was a task associated with servants: overlooked actions performed by overlooked people. But there was Jesus, calling their attention to the forgotten in word, deed, and body: “Love one another as I have loved you.” We are commanded to notice the people who have been rendered invisible.
In one sense, we receive countless footwashings everyday. Our feet are washed by men and women who pack our grocery bags, clear the trash in our office, pass us a cup of Starbucks. Imagine Jesus there — that is what was so startling, what prompted such resistance from the disciples. They couldn’t understand that the man they believed in — this man they knew as the light of the world, as the bread of life, as Rabbi — that this man knelt before them, washing their feet (packing a grocery bag, clearing a trash bag, giving them coffee).
More than that, Jesus proclaimed this an act of love; and we hardly attribute the motivation of love to our baristas. But I think it’s important to recognize the many, small, ordinary ways in which we have been loved, and in which we might offer our love to others. From the parent who takes the burnt piece of toast so the child doesn’t have to eat it, to the sibling who shares clothing for an important interview, to the friend who tells you when you have food in your teeth: these acts are worth recognizing.
This model of love that Jesus gives to us is not a “for emergencies only” kind of love. It calls for an everyday commitment, for habits of ordinary affection and hospitality. Feet were washed in Jesus’s time because they were messy — kind of gross, really. Dirty, sweaty, callused, and maybe even blistered. Jesus models love for the disciples by entering that messiness of everyday life, and “so you should also do.”
It is the start of the Triduum, and we know what comes tomorrow, and most importantly, we know what comes after tomorrow. We know that a love which begins in the ordinary does not stay there. But it is perhaps a place to start. In a world marked by extraordinary violence that has started to feel ordinary, it might help to start by looking for signs of love in the quotidian, and ways to offer that love to others, especially others we might have gotten into habits of ignoring. It might help to start by celebrating the awesome amidst our everyday lives. To do as we have been commanded, and live into an extraordinary love through very ordinary ways.