If you were to walk into my office, you would find hanging on the wall Sieger Köder’s picture of Jesus kneeling before Peter, washing his feet. Almost each day this piece of artwork invites me into a deeper engagement with the question Jesus asked his disciples after washing their feet. Do you remember it? “Do you understand what I have done for you?”
This question faces all of us who want to embrace the Jesus way for our lives. Even though Jesus himself answered the question to some extent, we do not seem to have grasped its revolutionary significance. Jesus’ foot-washing action sharply contradicts the dominant way our society is organized, so we tend to shy away from engaging the question’s tough challenge. Foot washing seems too inconsistent with our culture, too challenging, too radical for ordinary people like you and me. Let us, however, for a few moments put aside these concerns and take a long look at this picture.
First of all, as we meditate on the figure of Jesus kneeling, barefoot, head down, it reminds us that the Jesus way involves a downward journey. Not surprisingly, we can see in the picture one of Peter’s hands resting on Jesus’ shoulder while the other one is raised in protest. We can almost hear him saying to himself, This is not the way things are supposed to work. Our master should not be washing our feet. If we go along with this, what will it mean for us? I will need to readjust all my attitudes, my values, my relationships, the whole way I see the world. I don’t want to lower myself like this to anyone. I will not let Jesus wash my feet. When he said this aloud, Jesus’ response to Peter was quite firm: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
Second, can you see the reflection of Jesus’ face in the water basin? It reminds us that the Divine Presence often gets reflected in the ministry of small things, like the washing of feet. In the Kingdom of God, the small things are usually the big things. Small wonder that our loving service toward one another tends to get expressed in the mundane, the menial, and the messy. When we serve one another in small acts of helpfulness, the face of Christ is reflected toward those around us. I am reminded of the story that Desmond Tutu sometimes tells. When he was a young boy growing up in a segregated South African township, he observed an elderly white Anglican priest raise his hat in greeting to Tutu’s mother, who was a domestic worker. This small action of respectful courtesy touched young Desmond’s heart profoundly. It became the basin of water in which he saw the reflection of Christ’s loving presence.
Third, the bent figure of Jesus reminds us of the gospel challenge actually to become a servant in heart and mind. Servanthood is not only something we do; it’s who we are and seek to become. As we look at Jesus washing Peter’s feet, we see that he was modeling a new way of being; a completely new attitude toward life; a new way of living and serving our families, our friends, our colleagues, and even our enemies. Certainly I have yet to grasp all the implications of Jesus’ radical action for my life and relationships. Have you?
Perhaps, in closing, you might like to enter into the picture imaginatively yourself. Take some time to become quiet before it. Ask God to be near to you. Allow the foot-washing story once again to come alive in your imagination. See Jesus washing the feet of Peter. Finally see him kneel before you, take your feet, and place them in the basin. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings as he washes them. When he finishes, he looks up at you and asks, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” Enter into conversation with him from the heart and listen to him as he responds.
May you know the blessing that comes from the foot-washing Christ.
A German Catholic priest and artist, Sieger Köder was born on January 3, 1925, in Wasseralfingen, Germany. He is regarded as one of the best German artists of Christian art of the twentieth century. During the second world war he was sent to France as a front line soldier, where he was made a prisoner of war. Once back from captivity, Köder attended the Academy School of Art in Stuttgart until 1951, studying carving and silversmithing, as well as painting and art history.
After twelve years of teaching art and working as an artist, Köder undertook theological studies for the priesthood, and in 1971, he was ordained a Catholic priest. From 1975 to 1995, Father Köder exercised his ministry as a parish priest in Hohenberg and Rosenberg, Germany. Today he lives in retirement in Ellwangen, not far from Stuttgart.
The years of his ministry as a “painter-priest,” as he prefers to be called, are among his most prolific, during which he produced some of his most inspiring works of art. There appears to be complete synergy between Fr. Köder as minister and Fr. Köder as artist. He uses his paintings as Christ used his parables; “revealing” the depth of the Christian message through metaphors, shedding light and color on life and human history.
Trevor Hudson is presently part of the pastoral team of the Northfield Methodist Church in Benoni, South Africa. He also travels doing retreats, conferences, and teaching missions in local congregations. A number of his books Have been published in the USA, Including A Mile in My Shoes (Upper Room), One Day At A Time (Upper Room), And The Serenity Prayer (Monarch). His latest, Questions God Asks Us, was published by Upper Room in July of 2009.