a Holy Week devotional adapted from a homily I presented at my church on Maundy Thursday 2013…
Each year of my childhood, my church would offer a Maundy Thursday service where they also held the traditional Jewish Seder meal in celebration of Passover. Honestly I tried to concoct many clever excuses in my early years to get out of eating such a strange meal with things like bitter herbs and lamb and then participating in foot washing where someone had to touch my feet and I had to touch theirs – no thank you! Nonetheless, my dad kindly forced us kids to go and I am so grateful because these traditions, which I did not understand at the time, have now become such a rich part of the fabric of my faith that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I think experiences such as Maundy Thursday services began to water the deeply planted seed of my love for the roots of our Christian faith. This love propelled me to respond to an invitation to travel to Israel last January with a “Let me pray about it…YES” kind of answer. And as we journeyed through the Holy Land where the very core of our faith finds its story, I knew these experiences would shape the rest of my life.
One thing at the very top of my Israel bucket list was to visit the Western Wall, or better known to many of us, the Wailing Wall. We first arrived at the Wailing Wall during sundown on a Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath – and much to our surprise, we were not greeted with a somber atmosphere of worship as the faithful prayed their prayers and placed them in the cracks of the wall – instead it was a Shabbat party! Hundreds, and probably thousands of people, especially students fresh out of school, piled into the courtyard of the Wailing Wall and it was a joyous and loud celebration of song, dance, worship, and community. While this became one of the highlights of my trip perhaps due to its unexpected and unique nature, I jumped at the chance to return on a quiet and crisp January morning a few days later.
As soon as I stepped into the area closest to the Wall that morning, I could sense the raw and tangible atmosphere of worship.
Jewish worshipers entered clutching their prayer books and found their way to the large stones of this massive Wall. They then began praying under their breath the prayers of their book and eventually started rocking back and forth, bowing from the waist, fully engaged physically and emotionally, often with tears streaming down their faces. Taking a few steps back from the Wall still rocking and praying, they would slow their pace and eventually return to the ancient stones and continue the process many times. This powerful expression of worship and devotion and reverence was their cry to God.
The Wailing Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mound of Jesus’ day, and the term “wailing” comes after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70ad and the call for Jewish people to weep over the desolation of the Temple. While many of these worshipers this particular day were perhaps weeping over the Temple’s destruction as instructed, you could also sense this deep personal grief and emotion powerfully being expressed through their tears and their prayers.
It is believed that the Wailing Wall was the very closest to the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple – the place so holy that it was hidden behind a curtain within a room of the inner courts and only the high priest could enter only once a year – this was the place where God’s very Presence dwelled in the midst of His people.
And this is why Jewish pilgrims continually come from around the world to pray their prayers at the Wailing Wall – even though the Temple no longer stands, it is still believed to be the most holy place to offer prayers and to encounter God most intimately in the place where He most intimately dwelled.
While the expression of tears and prayers and grief was hauntingly beautiful as these worshipers expressed such a raw hunger for God, by the end of my time there, I began to feel such a weight for what they were missing – and I wished I could bend low to each person and gently say with such love that a wall no longer separates us from the fullness and most intimate Presence of God – the very Presence that was within the Holy of Holies is now within us – and we are no longer outside of the wall.
Matthew and Mark both reveal that the very first thing to occur after Jesus had breathed His last on the cross was that the curtain of that inner room of the Holy of Holies was torn in two. I cannot help but wonder if threads of that curtain began to slowly fray throughout Jesus’ ministry as he dined with lepers and spoke life to prostitutes and healed those who would have been forced even outside of the city walls because they were unclean – those who would have never been able to go into the Holy of Holies. And perhaps the curtain truly began its inevitable tear when Jesus kneeled before His disciples in that upper room as a servant and revealed how intimately they truly belonged to Him.
And so this night – the last night of His human life on earth – the final moments to teach His disciples before the crucifixion – the final time where I can only imagine how much His heart ached for them to just get it…
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper
…and He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-16).
Peter cried out to Jesus that he would never wash His feet. And Jesus responded,
If I do not wash you, you won’t belong to me.
What wordlessness must have filled that room as He knelt down to each man and washed the dirt and grime from their feet – such an intimate and selfless act.
To Peter perhaps in that very wordlessness, Jesus said, “I know you will deny Me in the next few hours and I know you will flee as I die – but I also know that you will be one of the most powerful leaders of My church – and as you remember Me, remember this – remember that you belong to Me.”
To Judas in the wordlessness of hands cupped with water gently cleansing his feet, “I know you will soon betray me and set this agony in motion – but oh that you would understand this moment – that I long for even you to remember that you could belong to Me.”
To Thomas, “you will doubt when I return and you won’t be able to understand at first – but you will feel My hands and My feet and maybe as you kneel down to touch the very holes in my feet, you will remember how I knelt this night to wash yours – and you will remember that you still belong to Me.”
If I do not wash you, you won’t belong to me.
This act of foot washing – so intimate – so disarming – and while we have not experienced Jesus physically washing our feet, He gives us moments of such closeness that I think reveal this powerful act in a way our hearts know how to grasp – so we would remember that we belong to Him.
And as with most parts of our story, it doesn’t end with us – we experience this intimacy with Jesus – this intimacy that reminds us we no longer have to stand outside of the wall aching to just get near the place where the Holy of Holies was so that God may hear our prayers – this intimacy that kneels to wash our gnarled and dirty feet – this intimacy that says, “you belong to Me” – and this act then calls us to reveal this powerful truth to others.
Some of the last words of Jesus the Gospel of John records before His arrest are found in His prayer to the Father,
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. I in them and you in me; that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
And so my prayer this Holy Week is that we would truly remember – that we would sense Him even now kneeling to wash our feet in a way our heart grasps and saying, “Oh child, remember – you belong to Me.” “I in them and you in me…” We belong to Him and His very Presence dwells within us. And as we understand this weight, may we be anchored in our identity to then help others know that they belong to Him as well – and may each of us know that we are no longer outside the wall.