A mixture of perfume and stale cigarette smoke hung in the air. Breakfast dishes lay jumbled in the sink atop several night’s dinner plates and a variety of utensils. The half-full bag in the kitchen garbage can had been tied off but not yet taken out.
That was my mom. She had taken too long to get ready for work at the deli counter of a nearby grocery. So she had dashed out of her little apartment, promising herself to make the bed, to pick up the towels, to gather the clothes strewn on the floor, and to tidy up the kitchen once she got back home.
It was the same promise she made most mornings. A promise she usually didn’t keep for days on end. After a couple of weeks, she would lose herself in a cleaning frenzy, commit to keeping a clean house, and the cycle would resume.
Except for this time. This time, my mom didn’t come back home. She died behind that deli counter that day.
As her only surviving relative, it fell to me to empty her apartment and to deal with her meager estate. After my shifts as a chaplain at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, I would drive to mom’s place. Before moving furniture and cleaning the apartment, I had to sort through her finances.
Her filing system for bank records and bills consisted of piles of opened and unopened envelopes stuffed haphazardly in dresser drawers, stacked on end tables and nightstands, or scattered on the floor. Hours ticked by as I sorted through scores of outdated documents.
Wedged in among these impersonal papers would be pictures or cards or old newspaper clippings that my mom had saved. They were mostly about me or about the both of us. Each of her mementos stopped me in my tracks and slowed my progress.
The thick smell of the place affected my breathing. It saturated my clothes and my hair. On an especially hot July Atlanta evening I dragged back into the house we were sitting for the summer. My wife Joy was pregnant with our third child Patrick. She was in the kitchen with our 7-year-old son Andrew and our toddler Meredith.
“How you doing, kid?” Joy asked.
“God,” I said, “I stink. I just reek of my mother’s house.”
What I realize now is that “I stink” was easier to say than, “I miss my mother.”
I didn’t idolize my mother. I had no illusion that she was a Norman Rockwell figure of orderliness, good grace, and unflappable wisdom. Her love for me was extravagant and sloppy. Our relationship was messy. Like her apartment. We supported each other and pulled for each other and stuck by each other and poked each other in the eye.
Maybe you’ve come across or even achieved something different. But that’s what love has looked like in my life: imperfect people embracing and frustrating, nurturing and infuriating imperfect people.
And it seems to me that Jesus makes this way of messy love into the way of eternal life. That’s what I hear when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Consider the context. Jesus says these words on the night before he is crucified. The disciples have just shared the Last Supper. In other words, Jesus has instituted the Holy Eucharist as the definitive spiritual practice for his community.
The Eucharist is not just some prayer we say or some rite we perform. It is the Holy Meal in which we participate in the divine life and the divine life abides in us. The Holy Meal at once shows us who we are and makes us who we are.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus uses the familiar words “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” to establish the meaning of the Eucharist. John, by contrast, records that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and instructed them to do the same for each other. The foot washing tells us the meaning of the Eucharist.
After supper, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going away. He will die, rise, and ascend. And, he adds that they know the way his is going. Thomas says he doesn’t know any such thing. And Jesus says, “Yes you do! I just showed you. That was the point of that whole foot washing thing!”
The foot washing signifies the Way of Jesus. We all come together with dirt between our toes. No exceptions. We imperfect people accept and nurture and bear with other imperfect people.
People with dirty feet wash people with dirty feet. And yes, we will get each other’s dirt on each other in the process of getting clean. Our hands will retain the smell of each other’s feet. Christ himself resides in the very flesh of those who wash and those who need to be washed.
This is the Way. It is the only way to the heart of God. Eternal life starts here.
Back in the kitchen with Joy and Andrew and Meredith, the words “I stink” seemed to hang in the air for a few minutes. Nobody spoke. And then my 7-year-old son Andrew spoke up.
“You don’t stink, Dad. You smell like Oma.”