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The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet

The Washing.

The belief that icons reveal the eternal truth embodied in Jesus Christ within the place and time is at the centre of the studio’s work here in Conestoga. It was with great joy that the studio accepted a commission to paint an icon of the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet last year. 

The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet is a profound example that Jesus shows about living and happiness. But, it is an event that can get lost in the week leading up to Easter. First, Jesus and his disciples enter into Jerusalem amid palm branches and song. They eat and drink together at the Last Supper, initiating a sacrament given for our life in Christ. Suddenly, Jesus is arrested, tried and tortured, crucified, and dies, accomplishing our redemption from sin, even as the disciples’ loose hope and scatter. Then, being raised from the dead, he appears to Mary Magdalene early on Sunday morning, the firstfruit of a world participating in God’s love. In a week, Jesus recreates our relationship to God and our whole world. It’s a week full of services and vigils in which we enter into the most profound sadness and joy. 

The Washing, detail.

Amid all these miraculous events, only the apostle John writes about Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet after their last supper. During a week of fulfilled prophecies and miracles, the mundane moment of a man removing dirt off his friends’ feet is easy to miss. But, it is an example that I think is especially relevant today. John gives his account like this:

Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 

Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand’. 

‘Never!’ said Peter ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me’. 

‘Then, Lord,’ said Simon Peter ‘not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’

Jesus said, ‘No one who has taken a bath needs washing, he is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’.

When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’ he said ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. I tell you most solemnly, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the man who sent him. Now that you know this, happiness will be yours if you behave accordingly.’

—John 13:3-17, Jerusalem Bible
The Washing, detail.

The event of the washing of the disciples’ feet should turn our idea of relating to others on its head. Rather than looking at power through the lens of an ideological dichotomy of good or bad, Christ challenges us with its use. In washing the feet of his disciples, we see power exercised in humility and the blessing it fosters in practice. This profound example even comes with a promise—such actions are a source of happiness (Greek: μακάριος, or blessing in the King James translation).

It was an experience of seeing first hand this exercise of power that led to the icon being commissioned. In his work documenting the plight of families separated at the US-Mexican border in 2019, David (the patron of this work) saw firsthand the harm done to others by those in power. Witnessing this misuse created a crisis for him, both in relating to his government and church. Returning home, he wanted to meditate on how he should exist in the world. After discussing a few different ideas, we decided that an icon of the washing of the disciple’s feet would provide such an opportunity to prayerfully consider the use of power, both for David and others.

The Washing, detail.

The Washing is an especially appropriate icon for today. Within the vision it bestows we can marvel at Jesus—God incarnate—stripping down and performing a menial task for his followers. While none of us have power like that, we all have some areas where we are important and influential. Over the many months of painting this icon, I came to consider my own place of being a father, one where I feel I am especially called to act humbly and to serve. 

Standing before the icon of The Washing, we see Christ, stripped to his undergarment, washing Peter’s foot. I hope that Peter’s reaction of unworthiness will inspire us. We see his disciples, a group of men young and old, looking with wonder at what is happening. And by stripping ourselves down to care for others in the most menial tasks, we can anticipate the rich happiness (and blessing) that Jesus promises us in serving others.

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