With all his heart, Jesus wanted to eat a meal with his friends before he died. He knew that Judas would hand him over to his murderers, and he knew that God had given him power over everything. He did not punish Judas or avert his own death. Instead in the middle of dinner he got up, took his clothes off, wrapped himself like a slave in a towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.
It’s difficult to articulate the weight of this gesture without becoming mawkish or trite. That it represents a superhuman act of forbearance does not need saying; that it is of profound theological significance is beyond the scope of my words to illuminate. Rather than get too much in the way of the story itself, I just want to point out that it is the consummation — or, to use a better word, the fulfillment — of a mystifying kind of generosity which was there in God from the beginning.
An under-appreciated moment in Genesis comes right before Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden of Eden. Before he sends them out on the wanderings that would become our wanderings, God makes clothes for his fallen children.
What’s so remarkable about this is the fact that clothing was itself a result of the fall. It was after they disappointed themselves and betrayed their God that the pair grew revolted with what they had become and wanted to hide their mistake by covering their bodies. They did so hastily, insufficiently, in their absurd effort -- which is also our absurd effort -- to be hidden in their shame from God.
At that moment God might have been expected to laugh at them. Or to tear the fig leaves out of their hands. Or, indeed, to abandon them entirely. He did nothing of the kind. Instead he acknowledged the consequences of their choices and accepted their actions as those of beings created free so they could freely love. Then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work making them better clothes.
We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory: not one of us is the good and brave and gracious person we feel certain, somehow, despite it all, we were meant to be. But rather than scrap us and start over, God will work with us under the circumstances that have been given him. We were never made to need clothes, but now that we do he will stitch them for us with his own hands. We were never made to cover ourselves in filth, but even if we do God will take off his own clothes, get down on his knees and wash us clean. In all his might, with all power in his hands, he will strip himself of everything and live with the reality of our shortcomings. He will divest himself of every grudge he could rightly have against us and opt to keep us rather than reject imperfection. When St Paul says that we have put on Christ like clothing, this, I think, is what he means -- that in response to our freely chosen sin God has freely chosen to cover us in mercy (Galatians 3:27).
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Tomorrow I'll say a little more about what that mercy cost. For now here's my translation of the Genesis passage.
Now the snake was cunning, more cunning than everything else with life in the field that the God of gods had made. And he said to the woman, ‘is it true that God said, “you shall not eat from every tree in the garden?”’
But the woman said to the snake, ‘we can eat fruit from the garden’s trees.
‘But the fruit from the tree that’s in the middle of the garden — God said, “do not eat from it, and do not go near it, or else you will die.”’
Then the snake said to the woman, ‘you won’t die, not really die.
‘Because God knows that on the day you eat from the tree, your eyes will be opened, and you’ll become like gods, knowing good and evil.’
The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was sumptuous to the eyes, a tree to be lusted after for the acumen it gave, and she took one of its fruits and ate it. Then she gave it to her husband alongside her, and he ate.
And the eyes of the pair were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They stitched together leaves from the fig tree and made coverings for themselves.
Then they heard the voice of the God of gods walking in the garden, in the breeze of the day, and the man and the woman hid themselves from the sight of the God of gods among the garden’s trees.
But the God of gods called out to the man and said to him, ‘where are you?’
And he said, ‘I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I am naked, and I hid.’
And he said, ‘who told you you were naked? Did you eat from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’
And the man said, ‘the woman that you gave to be beside me — she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’
And the God of gods said to the woman, ‘what is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘the snake deluded me, and I ate.’
And the God of gods said to the snake, ‘because you did this, you are cursed, more cursed than all the beasts and everything with life in the field. You will travel on your belly and eat dust every day you live.
And I will lay down hostility between you, and the woman, and her offspring, and their offspring: they will wound your head, and you will wound their heel.’
To the woman he said, ‘I will make your toil and your conception greater and greater. In toil you will give birth to children, and your yearning will be towards your husband, and he will rule over you.’
And to Adam he said, ‘because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat, the soil is cursed because of you. You will eat from it in toil every day you live.
‘It will sprout nettles and thorns for you, and you will eat plants from the field.
‘With sweat on your face you will eat bread, until you return to the soil, from which I took you: you are dust, and you will return to dust.’
And the man called his wife by the name ‘Eve,’ because she was the mother of everyone who lives.
Then the God of gods made robes out of animal hide for the man and his wife, and he clothed them.
And the God of gods said, ‘look: the man is like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, so he will not reach out his hand and take fruit from the tree of life too, and eat it, and live forever — ’
And the God of gods sent him out of the garden of Eden, to work the soil from which he had been taken.
He exiled the man, and set the cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden, and a blazing sword revolving, turning, to guard the path to the tree of life.