Holy Week Addresses
The following addresses were given by Canon Simon Butler during Holy Week 2016.
One of the great things about art is the ability it gives us to imagine what people
looked like. Of course, we know that Jesus definitely didn’t look like the image of
him you see in this picture – or indeed in any of the pictures you shall see in the
next three days. He was an olive-skinned Palestinian Jew. But there is something
about being able to see depictions of people – and especially I think faces – that
helps us to imagine and to enter into the stories in a deep way.
So, over the next three days, I’m going to focus my reflections quite a bit on the
faces we shall see. I’m always more aware in Holy Week of the people I am
worshipping with. I’m more aware of the engagement each of us has with these
powerful and world-changing events. And I see that, very often, on the faces of the
people who gather for worship, on your faces in other words. There is something
special about our faces – the way they tell us about what is going on inside us, the
way they reveal deeper truths about ourselves to others.
So, let us pause over each face in this wonderful picture of Ford Madox Brown, a
picture which gives us a wonderful compendium of emotions etched on the face of
each character present at the Last Supper. Look at John, on the far right. He’s gazing
at Jesus over Peter’s shoulder with complete concentration and attention. While
many of the other disciples are tight-lipped with brows furrowed, seemingly
horrified and scandalized at the sight of their beloved Master performing the task of
a servant, John’s slightly-parted lips and clasped hands show someone fully engaged
in what happening. Perhaps he is learning from Jesus that love of others is shown in
a life poured out in service.
To John’s right (to our left) sit two more disciples: the hands of one are clasped, the
other’s are wrapped around his brother in a comforting, protective gesture. Perhaps
the disciple on our left is one of those like some of us who struggle to comprehend
the idea of a Servant King; maybe he is distraught over Jesus’ mysterious words
about departing from them soon. But whatever their thoughts, these two men find
strength and solace in their shared love of Jesus. Maybe, in comforting one another
they are more able to overcome their own confusion and fear and enter more fully
into the what is happening before their eyes. Perhaps, like us, we need the comfort
and love of others alongside us to understand the serving love of God more clearly.
We need one another to understand the depth God’s love in Christ.
Moving around the table, there are four disciples in the shadows. They seem to be
struggling more than the others in accepting Jesus’ humble actions. Starting on our
right and moving left, the first disciple in this group seems to have pain etched on
his face: his brown is deeply-furrowed brow and his clasped, wringing hands seem to
point to anxiety and confusion, and maybe also sorrow. It almost seems as if he
wants to get up from the table in order to stop Jesus from washing Peter’s feet.
‘Stop, Jesus. This is wrong!’ It just doesn’t make sense…
The man seated next to him is almost completely hidden from view, though he
appears to be watching thoughtfully, resting his chin on his hand in a gesture of deep
contemplation. Maybe he is a sceptic, who is slowly beginning to come to terms
with the truth that is dawning in front of him. Maybe he’s beginning to realise that
love comes not through power but service. Perhaps some of us are learning that
lesson, perhaps the hard way.
The third man is a wonderful study in disbelief. He is wrapping his head in his hands,
scarcely able to watch such his Master perform the abject task of a servant. Likewise
with the fourth man in this subgroup, head resting on folded arms, as he watches
Jesus with an expression of quiet disbelief. Perhaps for the se two disciples, what is
unfolding before them – the servanthood of the one they have come to know as
Master and Rabbi – is almost too much to take in. One clutches his head as if utterly
confused. The other is deep in appalled thought.
Lastly, in the background, there is the disciple who is next in line in the foot
washing: he’s getting ready to have his feet washed by untying his sandals. I’m
reminded of those words of John the Baptist regarding Jesus: “I am not fit to untie
the thong of his sandals”. John the Baptist—called by Jesus Himself as the greatest
born of women— thought himself unworthy to loosen Jesus’ sandals, and yet here,
the sandals of this disciple are being removed and those of Peter lie cast aside on
the floor in the foreground. Jesus Himself who ministers to them as Servant-Master.
This disciple, maybe like us, is willing to risk the adventure of trusting Jesus love,
ready to take a leap of faith.
And so we come to Peter. Impulsive, headstrong Peter, whole-hearted Peter, the
one who first refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet and then, upon learning that he
could have no part of Jesus otherwise, begs for his hands and head to be washed as
well. Peter sits, his hands folded in prayerful contemplation, head downturned so as
to gaze upon Jesus. It looks as though he still quite cannot believe that he is actually
allowing Jesus to wash his feet. We seem to have caught him at the moment that
the significance of Jesus’ actions is beginning to sink in. Whatever thoughts are
crossing Peter’s mind, at this moment, the image seems intimate and close, at least
for the moment (lest we forget the denial that will come only hours later). For
now, as Peter thoughtfully regards Jesus, we see the dawning of the faith that will
blossom into the witness of Peter, that will lead ultimately to his own death for the
sake of the risen Christ.
And then there’s Jesus. When this painting was first shown, Victorian critics panned
it because Brown portrayed Jesus without the blue tunic, lightly clad, as described in
our reading. Brown was trying to paint Jesus, the Word made flesh in all of his
humanity, whereas Victorian audiences favoured depictions of Christ in which He
seemed to be set apart from the world. But despite the covering up, this picture of
Jesus has a beautifully human quality, especially his face. With his head turned
downward, Jesus is impervious to the tense confusion at the table behind Him, he is
entirely focused on the task at hand in washing Peter’s feet. His facial expression is
one of single-minded intensity. We often think of love as being soppy and
sentimental, but in this painting Brown shows love in its most profoundly Christian
understanding: concentrated, focused, intent on putting words into actions.
So let me conclude with two final reflections. Firstly, where are you in this picture?
Which figure mirrors where you are this Holy Week? Whether we are sceptic,
inquisitive, horrified, open, committed or fully-engaged, Jesus invites us again into
this story of our salvation. Tonight he demonstrates to us again the depth of the
servanthood at the heart of his calling and ours. Which figure do you most relate to
in that moment, right now?
And, finally, this study in love and reactions to it, reminds us powerfully and
recognizably, of the nature of God’s divine love entering into our world. Even the
low angle of view of the painting points to this descent of Jesus to the lowest place.
Love descends from on high to make his dwelling among us. Love endures life as a
refugee. Love grows up in poverty and obscurity. Love retreats into the wilderness
and overcomes temptation. Love proclaims the Kingdom of God and seeks out the
sinner. Love restores sight to the blind and life to the lifeless. And love gives itself
unto the end: washing the feet of friends; offering Body and Blood in bread and wine
once wine; enduring the traitor’s kiss, the scourge’s lash, the crown’s thorns, the
cross’s weight, the nails, the jeers, the scorn, the abandonment, the humiliation.
Love dies, so that love may rise in newness of life and bestow that life upon those
who would follow suit in offering themselves in turn as offerings of love. This
picture draws us in because God in Christ draws us in and invites us to follow him
from this upper room to the places that follow, all in the name of love.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.