The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev writes: “I saw myself, in a dream, a youth, almost a boy, in a low-pitched wooden church. The slim wax candles gleamed, spots of red, before the old pictures of the saints. A ring of colored light encircled each tiny flame. Dark and dim it was in the church …. But there stood before me many people. All fair-haired, peasant heads. From time to time they began swaying, falling, rising again, like the ripe ears of wheat, when the wind of summer passes in slow undulation over them.
All at once some man came up from behind and stood beside me.
I did not turn towards him; but at once I felt that this man was Christ. Emotion, curiosity, awe overmastered me suddenly. I made an effort … and looked at my neighbor.
A face like every one’s, a face like all men’s faces. The eyes looked a little upwards, quietly and intently. The lips closed, but not compressed; the upper lip, as it were, resting on the lower; a small beard parted in two. The hands folded and still. And the clothes on him like every one’s.
“What sort of Christ is this?” I thought. “Such an ordinary, ordinary man! It can’t be!”
I turned away. But I had hardly turned my eyes away from this ordinary man when I felt again that it really was none other than Christ standing beside me. Again I made an effort over myself … And again the same face, like all men’s faces, the same everyday though unknown features.
And suddenly my heart sank, and I came to myself. Only then I realized that just such a face—a face like all men’s faces—is the face of Christ.”
We are all in this together. This is the message of Jesus as he kneels to wash his disciple’s feet and says “… I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Later, it is expressed clearly in the commandment our Savior issues to his followers “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Like the congregation in that simple wooden church of Turgenev’s dream, the people of God are a community. Who belongs? Well, we all do. And when we participate in that community by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by washing one another’s feet either figuratively or in person, we begin to see the truth in Turgenev’s words and to live into the commandment of our Savior. Suddenly, all faces are indeed the face of Christ. Jesus lives in us, and we in him.
It seems to me that the past few weeks have driven this point home with all the subtlety of a ball pein hammer. We look around and realize we are all susceptible to what COVID-19 can do. If this virus hasn’t affected us—odds are good it will affect someone we know or even a person we love. We practice social distancing, we wash our hands, we order our groceries from delivery services, we hope and we pray. In this perilous time we have begun to learn the lesson, to a degree that perhaps we never have before, that what we do—or fail to do, holds immense importance for the life and well-being not only of ourselves, but for our neighbors as well. Something as simple as the washing of one’s hands can spell life or death.
We’re in this together. But there is something else at work here as well. Like Peter, in this evening’s reading, we have, I believe, become a bit more humble. Like the disciples whose feet are washed, we realize that we need each other. One thing this pandemic has done is illuminate our inherent vulnerability. COVID-19 respects no race or class. It is not bound by geography. You’re at risk if you live in California, the East Coast, Mississippi and the Midwest. It is not a respecter of intelligence, wealth, talent or privilege.
But being in this together doesn’t mean that we must lose our humanity in the pursuit of staying alive. COVID-19 might be powerful, but love is mightier. On Maundy Thursday it may appear that Judas holds the upper hand—but the truth is that God has the master plan in hand.
We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and wonder where Christ is to be found. You want to know where he is? He is here. He is with me and with you—wherever you may be. His face can be found in the visage of a janitor cleaning floors; or a nurse in the ICU, he is even there in the parent working from home, calming the tantrum of a four year old child. Jesus can be found in the eyes of an elderly person holding the hand of their spouse, and in the faces of all those, young or old, who reach out to those around them with assurance and love. Jesus is here, he is all around us. And how we respond—how we figuratively “wash the feet” of those around us, makes all the difference in whether they see Christ in our face as well. We are bearers of the Good News by virtue of who we are. Our actions show forth the love in our hearts. We are indeed all in this together. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates a love that we, as His followers, can extend to anyone. Living into the way that Jesus wants us to love others allows us to look for Jesus, and in looking, to realize that the Christ we seek is revealed in the faces of those around us.
The dream of Ivan Turgenev revealed a mystical reality. Christ is found in all those who believe in him. In ordinary, ordinary men and women, bearing a face like every one’s face—a face like all people’s faces. May Christ’s face be found in yours. In Jesus’ name. Amen.