For the past five weeks, some of us here at Saint Mark’s have been participating in a wonderful and somewhat unique Lenten program: Lenten yoga. Each Friday, after Evening Prayer and Stations of the Cross, we faithful few would make our way upstairs to the choir room, which had been transformed into a makeshift yoga studio. There, under the expert guidance of Diana Fisher, we learned to pay attention to our own bodies, to think about them differently and to engage them in new ways, trying things like stretching out through our inner ankles, lifting our ears towards the ceiling, and relaxing our tongues. Diana always encouraged us to do only what our bodies could do. Stretch only as far as you can, she’d say, and if you feel yourself collapsing, come out of the position. She never encouraged us to push our bodies; instead she encouraged us to really listen to them. Does the stretch feel forced? Okay – come out of it, realign your body, inhale, and try again. Does the stretch feel good? Great – hold it for a few more breaths.
What a gift this practice was. And what a gift that our choir room has not one mirror in it. Not one. So we never had to worry about what we looked like – we could lunge, bend, and twist away without a care in the world. I like to imagine that sometimes we looked just beautiful, that there were moments when we found that perfect balance, breathing in wondrous alignment, looking just like a print ad for Lululemon. But there were lots of times, I’m sure, when we looked completely ridiculous. We’d end up turned the wrong way, knees and elbows all angles, butt sticking up like a flag in the air. We’d stretch up and our tummies would pop out of the bottom of our shirts, or we’d look down and find one of our legs shaking uncontrollably. We’d lie on the floor and come up dusty, we’d take off our socks and find our toes covered in fuzz, we’d let out a breath and unintentionally grunt. But all of that was actually just fine, because all of that is just what bodies do, and our yoga practice was about learning to let our bodies do what they do, to let our bodies speak to us, and to utterly enjoy ourselves in the process.
Most of us don’t spend too much time just letting our bodies speak, letting our bodies do the marvelous things that they do. We spend more time thinking about how our bodies look than about what they do. The luxury that most of us have of not worrying about where our next meal will come from or whether or not our legs will work today can mean that we sometimes think about our bodies only in terms of appearance. Even when we are ill and we find our bodies suddenly spinning out of control like an engine stuck in high gear, we still often spend all of our time trying to change our bodies rather than trying to listen to our bodies. In our anxiety about how we look or even at times how we feel, we can forget that our bodies are not just some external shell for us to play with or manipulate; our bodies are us. And our bodies have beautiful, important, holy things to say.
Jesus, of course, knew this and lived this deeply. His embodied-ness was the very core of who he was – God made flesh, the eternal Word incarnate. Jesus often used his body, not just his words, to do his ministry, to say something important to the world. He touched lepers, he spread clay on the eyes of a blind man, he stretched out a hand to those once-dead, he knelt to pray, he wept real tears – and these are just the examples that the evangelists took the time to tell us about. Surely he also put a reassuring hand on an unsteady shoulder, tousled the hair of children underfoot, held a newborn baby up to his cheek, gave hugs, always using his body to say you are seen and loved, and all without a single word.
There is no greater example of this than the tender event we remember tonight, the moment when during his last meal with his disciples, Jesus gets up from the table, removes his outer robe, wraps a towel around his waist, and squats down to the ground to wash their weary, worn, filthy feet. He pours water over sore insteps and in between tired toes, he scrubs dirt off of rough heels and dries tender soles, trying not to tickle too much. By these simple, humble, intimate actions, Jesus speaks volumes before he utters a single word. With his body, he teaches this new commandment even before he says love one another as I have loved you.
It is important for us to remember that the footwashing here is not just a metaphor. As singularly significant as Jesus words are here, we cannot forgot that his body is speaking too. After all, Jesus could have just sat the disciples down and lectured them about love, but he didn’t. He could have taught them this new commandment in words as bright and engaging as a parable, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus used his body to speak, to reach out and touch, connect, purify, bless, heal, sanctify, satisfy. This action was the love itself – not just an image of the love, not just a metaphor about the love, not just a concrete example of the love to help his disciples remember his point, but the love itself, live and in the flesh, real, embodied, and sacramental.
Holy Week is a time of profound embodiment. Over the coming days, you and I will enter into this sacred time not just with our minds, but with and in and through our bodies. We will kneel and stand and genuflect, we will prostrate ourselves before the cross and sit still in the silence of a garden. We will kiss and bow and look up to heaven and in all of this, be reminded, again and again, that our faith is not solely an intellectual exercise. Our faith is not just a journey of the mind. Of course our minds are important, of course we use our reason and our imaginations to help our faith to grow, but such growth is never divorced from the worship and work of our bodies, from what our bodies are meant to just do, from what our bodies have to say to us and to the world.
Now in a moment, you will be invited to walk up here to the crossing to have your foot washed, to sit down in a chair, take off your shoe and your sock and to put your beautiful, imperfect foot – yes, that’s right, your foot, with the sock lint between your toes, the ugly little nail on your baby toe, and the wintery, rough skin on your heel – into my beautiful, imperfect hands, with my pale skin and my uneven nails and my slightly swollen knuckles. Now you certainly don’t have to do this. You’re welcome to just use your imagination. Truly, no one will think any less of you, and you certainly won’t be any less of a Christian, if you choose to stay in your pew. But just for a moment, realign yourself, take a breath, and ask yourself – what if Jesus was right? What if the actual act of having your feet washed has something to tell you that merely imagining just can’t? What if being washed in this way really does mean that you, like Peter, will have a share with Jesus? What if Christ has something profound to say to you here, and longs to use your body to do it?
Now maybe you’re sitting there thinking that all of this is just a ploy to get more of you up here for the footwashing. Which might be a little bit true. But only a little bit. Because far more important is the truth that how you listen to your body matters, because Christ is still speaking to your body through his. He says to us, Take eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And then he stops speaking to you merely in words and speaks to you body to body. He speaks to you in the cool feel of the host on your palm, or the slight sweetness as it melts on your tongue. He speaks to you in the golden muskiness of the wine as it fills your mouth. Christ’s body continues to speak, again and again, calling us to listen and to speak with our bodies in our own ways – to actually touch someone who is in pain, to bend down to help someone up, to hold someone who weeps, to wash and to feed and to walk with and to stand up for. So sit with your body in your pews. Feel the wood beneath you, holding you up. Feel your breath flow in and out. And listen for Christ’s body as it speaks in you. This might feel like a bit of a stretch. Does the stretch feel forced? Okay – come out of it, realign your body, inhale, and try again. Does the stretch feel good? Great – hold it for a few more breaths.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Maundy Thursday, 28 March 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia