On Bended Knee
“. . .At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”
Heaven and hell meet in the upper room and we have been invited to take a seat. The image of Jesus on bended knee washing his disciples’ feet calls for deep reflection. John slows the narrative down and fills out the details frame by frame. He makes us aware of the devil’s role behind the scenes. The dialogue is crafted poetically to reveal the meaning of Jesus’ actions and teaching. This powerful scene is best painted in the Spirit, not as a picture on a canvas, but as a vivid experience that shapes our souls and changes our lives. John describes the upper room in a way that invites our reflection and inspires our praying imagination. We intuitively know that Jesus’ act of humility and hospitality is something we must pay close attention to and seek to understand.
The Passion narrative begins with Jesus fulfilling the most basic etiquette of near eastern hospitality. He washes the disciples’ feet. This act was performed by servants, never by the host. If there were no servants to wash the guests’ feet, children did the task. Hand-washing is personal, it is done by the individual. But foot-washing is communal, a delegated responsibility, provided by the host and performed by servants.
The scene takes us back to Genesis when Abraham was visited by the triune God at Moriah. Some two thousand years earlier in this very same region, Abraham entertained the living God over lunch. One small connecting detail focuses our attention. Abraham bows low and invites his guests to stay, saying, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree” (Genesis 18:4). In Genesis, the hospitality is remarkable but the foot-washing is menial. The work of the servant is simply assumed. Foot-washing etiquette needs no further description and those who perform it receive no recognition. These two foot-washing scenes are significant. They span centuries of divine providence and fulfilled prophecy. Salvation history has run its course from the Abrahamic Promise to Christ’s Passion; from Theophany to Incarnation; from washing the feet of God before lunch to God washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. Jesus on bended knee washes the disciples’ feet.
We are not told explicitly that Jesus is on his knees, but he could not do what he did standing or sitting or even stooping. He had to be kneeling. He had to get down low, hold dirty feet in one hand and a wash cloth in the other. Unlike servants who diverted their eyes from their master when they washed their feet, we imagine Jesus looking at each disciple in the eye as he washed their feet and then dried them with a towel. They awkwardly looked down on him as he looked up at them. John’s vision of the one like a son of man in the Book of Revelation, describes eyes like blazing fire (Revelation 1:14). On Patmos did John recall that penetrating gaze that he saw when Jesus washed his feet? The next day, as he hung on the cross, they looked up at him, and he looked down on them. God himself on bended knee, sees the soul and handles feet, before breaking bread and pouring wine.
Up until now, Jesus was the one before whom people knelt. The Gospels describe these vivid scenes. The shepherds on bended knee bow low before the infant bundled in strips of cloth and laid in a manger. The magi fall to their knees in the presence of the King. They pay homage to the Christ child. On bended knee they offer their expensive gifts. Kneeling implies more than respect. There is a sense of subservience or worship associated with falling to our knees. In Greek and Roman culture kneeling was discouraged. It was thought to be unworthy of free men and beneath Roman citizens. Aristotle claimed it was a barbaric form of behavior. I imagine most independently-minded Americans agree.
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Peter fell to his knees. He pled with Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). It appears that plenty of people fall to their knees before Jesus. The rich young ruler came running up to Jesus and fell to his knees. But giving his wealth to the poor and following Jesus was not what he had in mind. He got up off his knees and walked away sad. The woman who snuck into Simon the Pharisees’ home to Jesus never got off her knees. During dinner she knelt before Jesus and washed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured expensive perfume on his feet. Kneeling before Jesus captures the body language of the soul. His presence invokes repentance and reverence. Most Christians know that getting on their knees in prayer is a good place to be. Jesus continues to bring us to our knees.
Even Pilate’s soldiers got down on their knees. Within hours of the upper room experience, Jesus was man-handled, beaten, spit upon and stripped. The Roman soldiers mockingly robed him in scarlet, crowned him with a thorny crown, and forced him to hold a staff in his hand. Jesus meant nothing to them. He became the occasion for expressing contempt for their hated deployment and venting their thinly concealed rage against a people they despised. They knelt down in feigned reverence, laughingly exclaiming, “Hail, king of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29). Their cruelty played out on bended knee in mocking derision. The soldiers made it all a big joke.
Unwittingly the soldiers symbolize the fact that sooner or later everyone kneels before Jesus: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). People knelt before Jesus in humble worship. Mocking soldiers knelt in vulgar sacrilege. The one before whom the whole world will kneel knelt to wash the feet of the disciples. The paradox is absolute.
Upper Room Reflection
In your mind’s eye how do you picture this upper room scene?
Jesus, the host, looked after all the preparations, but what was missing?
How has your experience of Jesus brought you to your knees?
What would it have meant to you to look down on Jesus and into his eyes?
The God Who Kneels – Lenten Devotional will post daily on this site.
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