Years ago I learned the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of the Buddhist tradition. The way I heard it, Siddhartha was born to a wealthy aristocratic family in India, a Hindu prince among his people. Siddhartha’s parents loved their child; loved him so much that they didn't want him to suffer at all. Of course no parent wants their child to suffer. But Siddhartha’s parented used their wealth to completely cocoon Siddhartha. He grew up in the palace and never went outside to see the poverty throughout the city and countryside. Beyond sequestering their son, Siddhartha’s parents also kept anyone who was sick or ill, anyone misshapen or scarred, away from the palace. Siddhartha only saw beauty, healthy people. In other words, Siddhartha lived life inside an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. For all he knew, all humanity lived his privileged life.
But one night, as a teenager, Siddhartha became curious about life on the other side of the palace wall. He couldn't see over the walls, so late one night he snuck out his window, climbed a tree, and slipped himself over the wall.
Outside the bubble of perfection in the palace, it was not long before Siddhartha met a beggar, covered in sores, emaciated, a Lazarus of the Ganges. At once he knew the lie he grew up under. Offering a cloak as cover for the beggar, Siddhartha set out to find what was true. Siddhartha’s enlightenment began when he realized the frailty of life and the reality of imperfection and the experience of suffering.
The story of Siddhartha stayed with me because his life story sounds so American, or at least, so like the experience of wealthy, privileged Americans. Much in our culture teaches us to deny our vulnerability, to look away from our mortality, to avoid our frailty. So often I've heard parents and families talk of sheltering children from seeing family members in the hospital; “we don’t want her to remember Grandma that way.” Like Siddhartha’s parents, we hide away the wounded and dying.
But our spiritual tradition, not unlike the path of Siddhartha, begins with a profound grappling with the reality of suffering, vulnerability, and death. This is especially true in Lent, a season which begins with Ash Wednesday, the night when we mark our foreheads with ashes, saying to each other, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a blunt reminder that we shall all die.
And then we end the season with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. On this night we take each other’s feet to wash them; and we let others wash us too. Then tomorrow we remember the betrayal of Judas, the desertion of the other disciples, and the death of Jesus.
At the beginning and the ending of the season of Lent, we ground ourselves in the imperfect, the wounded, the frail. And in all of it, we find enlightening grace.
Grace comes in these evenings, such as tonight, when we wash one another’s feet. Back in Jesus’ day it was customary for travelers to have their feet washed when they stopped for the night. Household slaves or whoever was lowest in the family, would wash off all the dust and manure and sweat that accumulated in a day’s journey. Unpleasant work; but also work which symbolized the lowly status of the person doing the washing.
Jesus up-ended the social conventions of his day by washing the feet of the disciples. They protested. Jesus washing their feet was even more unexpected than the time Pope Francis went to a prison to wash the feet of a Muslim woman. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples as a demonstration their equality and commitment to mutual service. He told the disciples to do the same - the mandate - saying, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
It’s one of three practices Jesus told the disciples to follow - baptism, communion, and foot washing. And yet, we Christians dropped foot washing about as soon as Jesus rose from the dead. While the first two became sacraments, the third was forgotten; and so one theologian calls footwashing the Cinderella sacrament.
The practice got revived only in the 1950’s and even then it's remained one of the most awkward liturgical celebrations. For the disciples, it was uncomfortable to have their respected teacher wash their feet. But for us I think it’s uncomfortable to have someone touch our feet. We’ve only gotten used to passing the peace in the last year; to take off our socks and have someone we don’t know well wash them… well, it makes us squirm, at least on the inside.
And yet it matters. Washing the feet of another, allowing our feet to be exposed, touched, and washed - all of it confronts us with our very physicality, our bodiliness, our imperfection. Afterall, it’s hard to keep up pretensions about perfection when someone sees the crookedness of your toes.
Grace comes when we abandon pretentions about our vulnerability and frailty. In a way our most authentic life comes when we stop denying the reality of our bodies.
Recently I read Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, in which he tells the story of his father’s struggle with cancer. Both Gawanda, his father, and his mother are doctors; yet each of them struggled to deal with the father’s illness. It started slowly, a few missteps while playing tennis; but symptoms grew until the family sought answers. A diagnosis of a rare spinal cord cancer came back as the cause. Without good treatment options, they first tried a wait-and-see approach and then tried some of the treatment options. But chemotherapy only left the father sicker without affecting the cancer at all. As a doctor Gawande knew this cancer would be terminal, as a son he couldn’t see the frailty of his father. Even as doctors, they wanted to look away, to find some other treatment, try something more.
The quest led them to another oncologist, who recommended another severe round of chemo. But the father baulked. And so he asked, “Without treatment, how long will I live?” “Three months to three years,” the doctor said. It was a much shorter timeline than anyone wanted to acknowledge. Knowing his father’s hesitancy around more chemo, the son asked, “And how long do patients who undergo chemo typically live?” “Three months to three years.” Gawande’s father decided against treatment; the months without the debilitating medicine meant he could have the energy to visit with friends, to entertain, to be himself.
Gawande’s father made the choice that was right for him; he could make it because he faced the reality of his mortality. It gave him the kind of life he wanted in what remained of it.
What kind of life can we have when we realize our own frailty? What kind of strength can come when we know our own vulnerability?
This night may we follow Jesus by acknowledging, if only to ourselves, our own limitations, our own physicality, our own bodiliness. For grace comes with that knowledge. Amen.