Love by the Foot
by Michael Tadros
An ominous darkness is ushered in when the doctor comes back with the latest MRI results. After weeks of testing, the results all point to cancer that will not stop spreading. Yesterday the pancreas, today the liver, tomorrow the lungs. She gathers your mother and loved ones around the hospital bed and informs you it is time to start contemplating your end-of-life plans. She stumbles to say the words: “…a few days, maybe a week.”
What would that patient do in that situation? In the 1980s, psychologists at Skidmore College sought to discover how individuals would behave when given a fictional day and time of their death. In over 1,000 experiments, researchers found that people tended to cling harder to their cultural beliefs by boosting their sense of self-worth. Those individuals, with a hypothetical date and time of death in mind, tended to treat others more contemptuously and violently while caring to fulfil their own desires through nihilistic practices. They gravitated towards drinking, smoking, shopping, and eating in excess, while pushing other people away—sometimes, even their loved ones. The psychologists called this behaviour Terror Management Theory; death anxiety drives people to adopt a defensive mindset and behaviour that protects their own self-esteem.
Essentially most individuals, when armed with the knowledge that their time is limited, will want to conclude their time focusing on themselves and their “happiness.” What would you do after knowing your time on this earth is ending? Generally, no one knows when their final breath will be. Sure, as intellectuals we know the moment is coming, but not precisely when. Christ knew. He knew the exact moment He would be hanging on the Cross and committing His Spirit into the hands of the Father.
Knowing that, then, what did He do before He “breathed His last?” (Mark 15:37). Like a lamb, “He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In front of the scourging and the shame of spitting, “He gave no answer” (Matthew 27:12). Not only did He deny Himself, He took it one step further—the opposite of what individuals normally do in their final hours—He loved. He forgave (Luke 23:24). He took care of His mother and His disciple (John 12:26). He comforted His children who were in tears (Luke 23:28). He was a peacemaker between two kings previously at enmity with each other (Luke 23:12). He healed the ear of one who came to capture Him (Luke 22:51). He even “instituted for us a great mystery” which is, “the partaking of His flesh in bread and wine” (Liturgy of St. Basil the Great).
But He did not stop there. With less than 24 hours remaining in the flesh, Christ washed feet (Liturgy of St Gregory). Why would He, who has the heavens as His throne and the earth as His footstool (Isaiah 66:1), stoop so low in His final moments? The Church teaches us that after washing and drying their feet, He gave His disciples “the ordinance of love and humility, and the remembrance of [His] love for mankind.” (Liturgy of the Waters for Covenant Thursday)
It was a lesson never witnessed before! The Master explained to them “if I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example” (John 13:14-15). By becoming a servant, the Master set a standard for His servants on how to love each other. Not a superficial love centered on the self, but a love that befits how the Master loves us—wholeheartedly, even to the point of death.
Should I not be humbled in front of Him who suffered on my behalf and reciprocate that same love towards my brothers? Rather than being grounded in egotistical practices, I ought to love because He first loved me. Rather than boosting my own self-interest, I ought to wash my brother’s feet because He first accepted to wash mine. As Abba Shenouda the Archimandrite teaches, “We ought to fear Him who poured the water in a bowl and washed the feet of His disciples with His impeccable hands. Let us present Him with good deeds that deserve this great modesty which He carried out for our sake.” (Homily by St. Shenouda the Archimandrite on Covenant Thursday)
The only gesture I can present to Him that is deserving of His great modesty is my love towards my neighbour; a true and faultless love that is completed when I bend down and show my brother the love Christ showed me.
Regardless of whether it is my last few days on earth or I have a lifetime to go, in the realities of my day-to-day life, my Christ-washed feet must be a mirror of the love He first showed me, as “the One who created the world never stops loving His creation, even when that creation does not return His love” (P. Meyendrof, 2019).
Now that I am washed by Christ, my feet are no longer mine, but rather they are “feet that preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:15). Instead of pouring water into a bowl, I should be pouring good deeds of love towards my neighbor, as St. John Chrysostom said, “your Master loved those who hated Him…emulate Him” (St John Chrysostom). I can imitate Christ by making every encounter with my neighbour an encounter with their Master as “theology is most convincing, palpable, and best told in the lives of those who lived theology in the truest sense of that word, as an encounter with God” (Fr Daniel Fanous, 2019) When God encountered me, He loved me by washing my feet, likewise, my encounter with you must also be of love, one foot at a time.