A Daily Beauty That Made Us Ugly

A Maundy Thursday Reflection

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) by English painter, Ford Madox Brown

The painting you see above had to be changed. Madox Brown originally painted Jesus without enough clothing to satisfy critics and potential buyers. It remained unsold for several years until the artist retouched the figure of Christ, giving him robes.

Such a response reveals more about us than it does about Jesus (or the artist, for that matter). We know from the Gospels that whatever Jesus wore while washing his disciples’ feet, it was less than he had on when he began. We know he meant to communicate something unsettling in its basic expression: a radical example of servanthood so unnerving that we might hold our heads as one disciple above is doing. Jesus, who had already lived his adult life as a man with “no place to lay his head,” was beginning to empty himself for others in undeniably discomfiting ways.

Jesus lived his life naked, in a sense. But we’re the ones who negotiate life around shame and insecurity. So it’s hard for us to see him that willing, open and exposed. It’s even harder for us to heed his example.

His humility was and is beautiful. But it makes us more aware of our own ugliness. Dorothy Sayers, borrowing from Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, wrote that Jesus had “a daily beauty that made us ugly.” We are so full of ourselves. Christ emptied himself, first in heaven (Philippians 2) and then on earth. We can’t help but seek actualization of all our dreams in an earthly “heaven” of our own pursuits. Jesus pursues us.

Maundy Thursday is not primarily about washing feet, though that is an important part of the story of Jesus’ last Passover. It’s about a deeper humility: the gift of Christ’s own body and blood. A meal made of love.

Many have objected to such an “ugly” thing. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Yes. It means, simply, he is giving his everything and we are taking it fully — his life into ours. We are feeding on him as though nothing else can fully satisfy. We are apart, but coming together in one eternal meal that unites all our diverse, but coordinated ugliness into the stark beauty of Jesus’ daily life, which was so hated as to be considered a threat.

It is a threat. It’s a threat to our pride, insecurity and our hopes in human achievement. It’s a threat to earthly fulfillment as an end in itself that pits us against one another, often unwittingly. It’s a threat to empty hope that appears full for a season, but leaves us choking down carob pods with the pigs.

Christ’s beauty is a threat, but it is also a promise. It’s the promise that if we will live on him and in him, our ugliness will be swallowed up in his beauty and this will not be the last or only spiritual meal we eat together. We will eat it again with him in his Kingdom. And it will be an incomparable feast.

We eat the meal of his death for our ugliness in the certainty of his victory over it and the joy of resurrection that awaits us beyond our “end.” In him and in his Meal, the beauty of the Kingdom becomes visible and tasteful in a world still made ugly and unbearably sour.

“Take, eat. This is my body.
Drink this (promise), all of you, for the forgiveness of sins.
Remember me.”

God of the covenant,
as we celebrate the beginning of the paschal feast,
we come to the table of the Lord
in whom we have salvation, life, and resurrection.
Renew the power of this mystery
in our service to one another and to you,
so that with Christ we may pass from this life
to the glory of your kingdom. Amen.
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