The first of April – a day that we know popularly as “April Fool’s Day.” For many it is a day of mischief that’s innocent enough: a day to test the credulity, gullibility or the foolishness of others. For those who manage to pull-off a good prank, the day is good for a laugh at the expense of others. For those who appear foolish because they fell for a trick – well, let’s just say some react better than others. The theme of April Fools Day has, I must confess, colored my reflections on the liturgy for this day. After all, it’s one thing for folks like you and me to appear or even to be foolish on April 1. It’s quite another for God to appear foolish.
And yet, the actions of Jesus that we have just heard described in the Gospel of John must have seemed pretty foolish to those who first witnessed them. It might even have appeared so foolish that all of the apostles gathered around the table in that upper room were themselves embarrassed when Jesus got up, took off his outer garments, and began washing their feet – acting in the role of a slave. Peter was probably not the only one who cringed at the thought. He was probably simply the only one bold or impetuous enough to make a protest. What was their teacher doing?
Come to think of it, what were they doing here in Jerusalem in the first place? After all, even as Jesus was attracting the attention and admiration of more and more simple folks, he seemed to have done nothing but aggravate the Pharisees and Scribes. He knew that leaders in the Sanhedrin were insisting that he be silenced, or arrested or worse. He himself had been making remarks about the track record of Jerusalem when it came to the treatment the city gives to prophetic voices. He even predicted that he would be put to death. Didn’t he learn anything from the tragic death of his cousin John? Wouldn’t the wise and prudent course of action have been to lay low for a while?
And yet, here Jesus was, in a city full of influential people who wanted to put him to death and had the power to do so. Here he was in the middle of the most solemn meal of the year, stripping himself and acting like a fool. This was not an action included in the ancient instructions given by Moses for the Passover meal. Were those family members of his correct in thinking that he had lost his mind?
Perhaps these were some of the questions swirling in minds of the apostles as they saw the Teacher take that pitcher of water and gently wash the feet of the first of their number at that table.
But if this gesture of Jesus was or at least appeared foolish, one can find plenty of evidence in the history of salvation to show that he was simply providing yet another example of divine foolishness. Why would the God who is all-powerful and complete freely bring forth creation only then to entrust its stewardship to a limited creature susceptible or prone to manipulation? Why would the God who is omnipotent and unnamable pick a small an insignificant family or tribe that was prone to infidelity for a particular relationship of covenant love? Why would the God who is beyond the measure of time and space take on our fragile and mortal nature? Why would the God who is Wisdom itself continuously appear foolish in an untiring pursuit of ungrateful and sinful humanity? Why indeed?
There can be only one plausible explanation for these seemingly foolish actions on the part of God: it can only be love – a love so strong and so complete that it defies the limitations of human logic, human wisdom, and even human foolishness. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes that: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Perhaps the foolishness and the weakness of God consist of God’s love, and in particular God’s love for humanity. And yet, this foolishness surpasses our wisdom and this weakness surpasses our strength.
We do not like to appear foolish or weak. We hold desperately on to the dignity that we construct for ourselves, no matter how fragile and foolish that dignity might be. In our fallen, misguided sense of wisdom, we try to build up or prove our strength by having dominion over others, by denying our weaknesses, by maintaining a sense of control, by demanding to be served by others while at the same time keeping others at a safe distance lest they come to know just how broken and needy we are.
Jesus, however, shows us the way of true wisdom. Jesus reveals the source of true strength. Jesus reveals his wisdom and strength not only by washing the feet of his disciples but also by allowing his own feet to be washed by the tears of compunction and dried with the hair of the one who loved him.
This night Jesus gives himself completely to us in love. He reaches out to us once again to cleanse us from the stain and shame of sin in our lives, and to teach us once again the path of new life. So great is his desire to save us from our foolishness that he gives us his very Body and Blood as a sacrifice of love and as life-giving nourishment.
But as he does this, he calls us to do the same for one another. Tonight, God chooses “the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the weak of the world to shame the strong.” He does so by giving us a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved us. To love one another with mercy, to love one another through service, to love one another in hope, to love one another with the foolish abandon of God.