Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to Him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
John 13: 3-8
(From the Gospel on Holy Thursday morning at the Vesperal Liturgy)
The Holy Week journey makes its first dramatic shift today. In the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy of Holy Wednesday morning, we read of the first act in the Passion of Christ, His betrayal by Judas. Judas makes a deal with the Jewish leaders to betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The lengthy Gospel lessons of Jesus final public exhortations and private teachings comes to an end. We are about to experience the intensity of His Passion.
First, however, we gather for a service for us, a service of healing which we call Holy Unction. Traditionally this service is held in the afternoon or the evening of Holy Wednesday. When I offer this service, I think of the Last Supper. The sun goes down outside the church, we gather in the low light of dusk. There will certainly be more than twelve people in church, and we will not be sitting around a table. However, at the end of the service, we will each be “washed” by Christ, through the anointing with Holy Oil.
Many will approach to be anointed because it is the ritual, we Orthodox do on Holy Wednesday. This service, however, is a lot more than just having oil wiped on your face by your parish priest. The “washing” is done not only through the oil but through the prayers offered at this service. The prayers of this service are great spiritual therapy. They provide encouragement and reassurance. They reassure us that God loves us, and has high hopes for us, even if we’ve strayed from Him. They reassure us that when we repent, He is ready to forgive. This service does not heal broken bones, but it can mend a broken heart and a wounded soul. Every physical and mental illness has a spiritual component. Whether it be temptation, or doubt or despondency, there is a spiritual consequence to every physical challenge. And while we go to doctors and medical professionals for physical healing, it is the church, through this sacrament, as well as the sacraments of confession and Eucharist, which provide the spiritual healing which supports and compliments physical healing.
I encourage you to attend the service tonight with a humble heart, to let the prayers “wash over you” the way a pleasant breeze washes over you on a warm day. Savor the words of the prayers. Let them penetrate your heart and soul. And when you approach to be anointed, pray as you wait your turn, that the oil will come into your body to heal whatever wounds you have. After you are anointed, go and sit in the pews again and rub the oil into your skin, continually praying for healing.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the Disciples, showing them both the need for cleansing and healing that comes from Him, as well as the humility of the Lord to stoop down and wash the feet of His followers. Being anointed should be both an act of faith in the mercies of God and an act of humility to accept them.
Later on in the supper, Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist, offering Bread as His Body and wine as His Blood to His Disciples. Holy Wednesday night is the opportunity to celebrate the first half of the Last Supper with the washing of ourselves through Holy Unction. Then, on Holy Thursday morning, we are offered the opportunity to celebrate this second half of the Last Supper, by receiving the Holy Eucharist. If our Holy Week services are designed to “put us there,” today’s invitation is to sit at the table with Jesus, to be washed by Him through Holy Unction, and tomorrow morning, to receive the Eucharist.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against, Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified in Thy sentence and blameless in Thy judgment. Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than show. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which Thou has broken rejoice. Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Psalm 51: 1-9
I invite you to sit at the table of the Last Supper along with the Disciples, and to allow Jesus to wash your feet.