Love, we are told, is a many-splendored thing.
This simple word can instantaneously evoke so many thoughts and emotions, as passion and affection, goodness and ecstasy ring around its guilded panoply.
But brilliance cannot be beheld without balance, else it would blind rather than beatify.
In the Gospels, Jesus is revealed in myriad images. He comes as a king, but in the raiments of a commoner. He is the source of all Good yet bears upon himself the weight of all evil. He is the complete gift of self revealed in Eternal Love, yet is scorned as the Divine Lover.
Love finds that its meaning hangs upon a thread already against the blade. Betokening the embrace of the erotic and the obsession of the compulsive, glimmering as the rarest of gems and as common as the taste upon the tongue, its life seems but a breath, to vanish with the sound in the very act of escaping the mind and the mouth.
God in the flesh was no stranger to the vagrancies that have piled themselves onto the word that describes his very nature. The Logos who enables every conception placed himself at its mercy.
In John’s Gospel we find a very interesting passage, where Jesus demonstrates what love is, which in fact becomes a self-revelation of the ineffable. But there are no soaring refrains clad in the garments of poetry, no lyrical masterpieces to awaken the heart, no orchestral swells to put a lump in your throat.
Instead, there are only feet.
The passage is familiar enough- during the Last Supper, Jesus, who being in very nature God, takes upon himself the form of servant, and washes his disciples feet. No laborious contextual analysis is required to appreciate the magnitude of such an act; after all, we are no more likely in our own time to bother with each other’s feet.
But there is something far greater going here. John describes it as such:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
These are words that are easily missed, especially on the way to the cross. It seems curious that John would even bother. In fact, it almost seems that John is being a little melodramatic. Loved them to the end? By washing their feet? In historical hindsight Jesus’ death on the cross at least seems noble, perhaps even grand. After all, doesn’t Paul say that this is the very demonstration of God’s love for us, in that while we still sinners, Christ died for us?
Doesn’t John therefore seem to have lost the plot?
In all honesty, this kind of love is probably a little harder to deal with. Our minds can grapple with love that is the stuff of epics, that clashes against all odds, that hopes beyond despair, that holds its head high even in the face of insurmountable odds. We can all want that kind of love, we can all hope for that kind of love, and maybe even some of us can do that kind of love. There is probably a bit of the martyr in all of us.
But feet bring love down into the dirt. That spotless and shining idea has to mingle with the mundane. It has to become something so, well… ordinary.
The reason we want the love of the epics and the poems is because we want something that pulls us beyond ourselves, and that by doing so justifies us. We want something that is worthy of love. But in doing so, there is the insidious inverse reality: it’s not that something has to be good enough or important enough for love, it’s rather that it must be good enough for me.
In this same story Peter shows us ourselves. Jesus prepares to wash his feet, but Peter refuses. We can only guess why, but surely this kind of love is not good enough for Jesus to bother himself with. After all, if it is, it can only mean one thing: this kind of love must be good enough for me. Peter would rather have the whole bath, would rather have the martyrdom. Something that is great enough for love; well, really, something that is grand enough for him.
Dirty feet make it all too clear that love must be the complete giving of oneself. This giving is not without a cost, for to give you first have to be emptied.
God’s nature is the eternal dance of love, as the Father gives completely to the Son, and the Son, as the image of the Father, pours himself back in a reciprocal gesture of love- and as love is not barren, is the Holy Spirit in the fecundity of relationship between the Father and the Son.
God is his infinite-ness and ineffability knows no bound of love, no limit to self-giving. God in Jesus shows us how to love to the end. The end of love, the source from which it springs forth and to which it is meant to return, is God. Love must not be bound by the grand or the epic, by the brilliant or the transcendent.
Love doesn’t have to wait for the great moments or the epoch making events, for in every instance that it has room to breathe, it lifts the ordinary to the divine, for, as John also tells us, love comes from God. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in him. And as Jesus told Peter, unless I wash your feet, you have no part of me.
Feet make an end of love, for love is when your feet can be themselves, in all their dirtiness and plainness, in the ordinary-ness of spending a life in shoes or covered in mud. So love probably likes feet the most, because when your feet can be feet and love can be love, they can finally stop being gross.
And then the rest of you will be too.