Compulsory memorization is common in many religions. I’ve read that some Muslim students are required to recite long passages of the Koran from memory. Jewish children learn the seder and Shabbat prayers in Hebrew by heart. Come to think of it, many Methodists have little need of hymnals to sing the songs of Charles Wesley.
I was once required to stand before my congregation and recite several articles of the Heidelberg Catechism, a dense treatise published in 1563 to teach the Christian faith. My recital was required by my pastor to pass through our church’s confirmation program, which was itself a requirement of my mother. I undertook this assignment with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner beginning a long sentence. I’ll never forget all the eyes on me as the pastor gravely posed the scripted question and awaited my obedient reply: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” In turn I spoke what I had fitfully committed to memory, “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” On the day of confirmation, I made it look easy. But in fact I had worked for weeks to learn this catechism. I sang the passages in the shower and filled pages of my notebook with the lines I struggled to recall. My mother demanded rehearsals on rides in the car. I look back at it now as a tortured lesson in humility: compelled to learn a tedious sixteenth-century text that declared my will was nothing apart from God’s will. Does every Christian have to work this hard to speak of such humility?
It was odd for Jesus, the Messiah and Lord, to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter objected that the leader should not wash the feet of the servant, insisting that their roles be reversed. Yet Jesus took Peter’s feet in his hands. John’s Gospel dramatizes the scene by offering us a glimpse into Peter’s inner turmoil. In the same breath that he consents for Jesus to touch him, Peter spills out a vague confession: Scrub me not just foot and ankle, he says, but head to toe. Peter’s three-fold denial, one for each day in the tomb, set Jesus on the path to crucifixion. I can only imagine all that is left unsaid between these two men over the water, basin, and towel.
In Latin, the words for humanity and humility share a common root with the word for soil, humus. We might say then that the virtue of humility is the practice of remembering our humanity, or remembering how God has created us from the soil. We begin the season of Lent with the smudges of Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Holy Week brings us to the upper room, where on Holy Thursday we celebrate Communion or have our feet washed as the disciples did. On Good Friday we see ourselves in the crowd that chants for death. Throughout Lent — perhaps with fasting, almsgiving, and prayer — we take on practices that help us to remember our humanity. I remember how I have tried and failed, how I have strived and erred, how I have loved and hurt. If ever I’m inclined to feel too bad about my shortcomings, I try to remember that there’s nothing glamorous about the soil from which I was made. Nor was there any job too low for Christ Jesus. If he chose to hold Peter’s dusty feet in his hands, I know his grace will wash me clean as well. We are all prone to forget how God has worked the soil, touched our bodies, and blessed our humanity. I suppose that is why generations of churchgoing children have been taught to recite all manner of hymns, liturgies, creeds, and confessions that speak of God’s love for us.
The memory of Easter will always keep us humble. So let us boast of God’s triumphant victory. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Questions for Reflection:
1. What were you made to memorize and how has that served you in your life of faith?
2. If your feet were in the hands of Jesus, what would be left unsaid between you?
3. What helps you to remember your humanity? What helps you to love the humanity in others?