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Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
By Rev. Dr. Annette Weissenrieder and Dr. Polly Coote
In a famous church window from the German artist Johannes Schreiter, a white jagged measurement line of an original cardiotocogram of an embryo flashes from the top left. The measurement line is bounded by a blue star, the sign for life. The cardiogram reflects a life of a human being. But that underlying idea is interrupted by a strange dark shade with a sign that looks like a cross. The cardiotocogram seem to show a life that comes to an end. Is this reflecting Jesus’ life and death? Or is this reflecting our own life that is overshadowed by death? “Do you understand what I have done for you?”
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” John presents the theme of life overshadowed by death in a dramatic enactment. Without a word of explanation, Jesus gets up from the table, puts aside his robe, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. Peter, like many of Jesus’ interlocutors in John’s gospel, recognizes immediately that what Jesus is doing just doesn’t happen in the real world. Coming from the one they call “LORD and teacher,” this is humbling oneself in the extreme: even slaves were not required to perform this act if they were Jews. Jesus replies to his protest, “You [Peter] don’t know now what I am doing, but you will know after this.”
After what? After the foot washing, Jesus asks the whole company, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” and tells them “If I, your teacher and LORD, washed your feet, you too should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you also may do just what I did for you.”
“For I have given an example.” The Greek text uses the term hypodeigma which literally means “prototype” or “archetype.” The word is defined by some passages in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament: it calls to mind the act of martyrdom. The old Eleazar in 2 Maccabees is a prototype, a noble example for his people, “of how to die a good death,” and the widow with her seven sons are prototypes for “an atoning sacrifice” for the sins of people. Therefore, the symbol of foot washing turns us to another aspect of example or prototype in ancient understanding. The foot washing as John sees it is a symbol of death. This implies that one is willing to change his or her life, to live an exemplary life.
Jesus gave an example not simply of service to one another within their own circle or even of living in the world serving others, but an example that was a pattern of what he was going to do. The example was to be Jesus’ sacrifice not only of status but of life itself, the example of his martyrdom. Only after that, perhaps, the disciples would know what Jesus had done for them that night and what it would be required of them to do also. This understanding of example is rooted in the past, but looks forward to the future.
The life line in the church window does not come to an end with the cross, but opens out in blue. As this blue line widens it makes also glints of blue visible in the black ECG as it also rises up to the beginning of life, to the blue star. Do we also see a symbol of how the line of Jesus’ life was already leading to the cross? Schreiter points to another example of following Jesus’ path. On the bottom of the window we find in small letters the life data of Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and doctor who not only decided to go to Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa as a medical missionary, but was also sent to a French camp as a prisoner of war.
Let’s follow the invitation of this cardiotocogram calling us to search for a life which is entangled with Jesus’ death. If you were to follow his example, what would you do differently?
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