Today, on Maundy Thursday, the church remembers the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples before his death, the meal at which he washed his friends’ feet. Maundy Thursday is one of the final stops on our journey through Holy Week. There’s a feeling of inevitability that hangs over this day. Everybody knows this moment is a “last” for Jesus.
The spring after we were married, Rob and I attended our first Maundy Thursday worship service together. We sat in the chapel on Wheaton College’s campus, surrounded by friends from our church’s small group that met in our home. Toward the end of the service, our pastor invited the congregation to participate in footwashing as an act of commitment to servanthood.
I’d never had my feet washed in worship before, and I awkwardly removed my shoes and peeled off my socks. I turned back to back with Rob in the pew as his friend bent to wash his feet and my friend knelt in the aisle to wash mine. I know footwashing was common in the ancient world and still is in some church traditions, but it was new to me. The experience was uncomfortably intimate and beautiful. I’d never had another person touch me that way.
Jesus used footwashing to help his disciples visualize what their life of servanthood must look like if they were to follow him. It’s a beautiful ritual in worship on a day like today, but that kind of servanthood is tough to live out day to day. Especially in marriage.
Now that Rob is gone, it is easy to look back on my marriage with rose colored glasses. Rob becomes my faultless knight in shining armor, I his demurring bride. I conjure happy visions of the two of us always selflessly serving one another. The reality though was far less pretty. You can’t live with someone for almost twenty years and never have your sinful nature rear its ugly head.
Rob loved me well, but he was no saint. He could be stubborn and disconnected. He didn’t always put me first. My faults were no smaller. In our marriage, I could be selfish and headstrong. I didn’t always want to put his interests before my own. Rob and I were two imperfect people loving imperfectly. We were, in the words of Martin Luther, simul justus et peccator — at the same time justified and sinner. For almost twenty years, Rob and I metaphorically washed each other’s feet — often lovingly, sometimes begrudgingly. We were two people stumbling toward servanthood, our marriage a very human attempt at selfless love.
On that Maundy Thursday years ago, before we washed each other’s feet, our congregation stopped to participate in the Lord’s Supper together. Seated side by side, we remembered Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. His body broken for those who scorned him. His blood shed for the undeserving. The footwashing that would follow — our own call to servanthood — could only make sense in the context of Jesus’ self-emptying, servant love. He set the example for us to follow.
Today, I miss Rob. Not because he was such a great husband and I was such an amazing wife. Not because we were an incredibly perfect team. (Though I do think we were pretty awesome together.) I miss Rob on this Maundy Thursday because our beautiful though imperfect relationship gave me daily practice at a selfless love I want to define me. I want to become more like Jesus, and Rob always encouraged me toward that goal. I miss our imperfect, sincere, shared work toward servanthood.
At our wedding ceremony, the congregation sang this beautiful old hymn. Almost two decades later, it is still my prayer. I wish I could continue to pray and live it out with Rob at my side.
Thy mighty love, O God, constraineth me,
As some strong tide it presseth on its way,
Seeking a channel in my self-bound soul,
Yearning to sweep all barriers away.
Shall I not yield to that constraining power?
Shall I not say, O tide of love, flow in?
My God, Thy gentleness hath conquered me,
Life cannot be as it hath hither been.
Break through my nature, mighty, heavenly love,
Clear every avenue of thought and brain,
Flood my affections, purify my will,
Let nothing but Thine own pure life remain.
Thus wholly mastered and possessed by God,E. May Grimes, “Thy Mighty Love, O God, Constraineth Me”
Forth from my life, spontaneous and free,
Shall flow a stream of tenderness and grace,
Loving, because God loved, eternally.