Ex 12:1-8, 11-14 | Ps 116 | 1 Cor 11:23-26 | Jn 13:1-15
On this night, year after year, as we begin the Sacred Paschal Triduum: one celebration spread over the course of three days. At this, the first celebration, there are principal mysteries commemorated in this Mass of the Lord’s Supper:
- the institution of the Holy Eucharist
- the priestly Order
- the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity
Part of the ritual this evening invites the Washing of Feet. Your priests get down on their knees and take the feet of parishioners in their hands, washing and drying them. I’d venture to guess that most people who have been designated to have their feet washed have already done so prior to Mass—and probably more meticulously than usual! So, what is this ritual all about if our nails are trimmed and our feet are already cleaned and lotioned?
Notice that after Jesus had finished washing the feet of his disciples, he said very plainly, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” At a very basic level, we do this each year in obedience to the command of Jesus. I’d like to suggest, however, that obedience runs deeper than a yearly reenactment. Obedience is a matter of hearing, yes, and of acting in accordance with what we hear, yes, but obedience in the biblical sense is also a matter of disposition. We become disposed to hearing God and doing as God desires as a way of life; we put ourselves in a position to trust that what God asks of us has meaning, and we act out of that trust.
When Jesus washes the feet of his followers, he’s demonstrating in this simple chore that he’s kneeling before another person’s need. He’s demonstrating that the simple act of hospitality in a Middle Eastern home isn’t beneath him but actually captures his purpose—to be of service, willingly, humbly, wholeheartedly. Think about that: the Creator of the Universe, and all that it contains, knelt before his creature and washed its feet! Take a peak at Page 4 of your worship aid: look at the one disciple in the background with his hands to his head: you can practically hear the thoughts of his head: “What on earth is he doing!?”
Our Lord expects that his example will become a way of life for us and not simply an annual ritual: “If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” This one holy night of our triduum is intended to set the pattern for a life of serving God by serving others willingly, humbly, and wholeheartedly. That foot-washing pattern is core to what it means to be a disciple, and it applies to each and every one of us. The fact that our priests wash the feet of those entrusted to their care is also meant to remind the priests, and the faithful alike, that ministerial priesthood is all about service, not power; about humility, and never pride.
Speaking of pride, let’s return to that observation about how clean our feet already are when we know they will be washed and handled for all the parish to see (Fr. Tom, St. Brendan story).
I wonder if some of our vanity around this is because our feet aren’t exactly that beautiful to begin with! My mom has told my sisters and me that when she’d change our diapers, she used to love kissing our feet after. But … by the time we’re adults, we have bunions and callouses, and our toes are perhaps misshapen by arthritis. Our feet are one of the body’s most hardworking parts. And there it is: being a disciple is hard work. The disciples had the road’s dust washed off so that could sit together and share a meal, but their feet were also being prepared to get back on the road to follow Jesus to the cross, run away from him (all but his mother, the faithful women, and John); and then, after a time of mourning and confusion, to go out into the world – and they did this, on foot!
Where will our feet take us? To prepare a meal for a family caring for a sick child? To sit with a friend while awaiting the results of a medical test? To repair a leaky pipe for an elderly neighbor? To carry a message about justice to a local legislator? To pick up a recently widowed friend and take him or her to the art museum or a concert – to help lift their spirits and touch their souls as only art and music can do.
These are the normal events of our lives, and they require that we do more than have good intentions.
We need our feet to turn those good intentions into action and be instruments of God’s grace.