Then think about the events that we celebrate at this time each year in the Liturgy: Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the Agony in Garden, Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial; And then the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost.
Our solemn celebration of the Lord’s Supper this evening gives us a good opportunity to see a little bit more of how the various mysteries of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are all interconnected.
Tonight we are not just celebrating one stand-alone event (the last supper) or a couple of separate actions (washing of feet, institution of Eucharist) but instead the whole paschal mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.
To see what I mean, let’s look more deeply at John’s gospel account of the washing of the feet that we just heard proclaimed. With a little reflection we can see how it interweaves several central themes. But before we reflect on this passage, though, it will be helpful to remember that we’re meditating on the Gospel of John, which means that we should be on the lookout for symbolism and especially for symbolic references to various sacraments.
BAPTISMAL IMAGERYLet’s start with one sentence in today’s Gospel passage, at the end of the interchange between Jesus and Simon Peter who doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet. “Jesus said to him, ‘Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.’” The Greek root word for “bathed” means “total immersion;” and it’s baptismal language; it shows up in lots of baptismal passages in the NewTestament. Here are just a couple of examples: “Now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word”(Eph 5:25-26). “He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us” (Ti 3:6).
EUCHARIST While we’re on sacraments, what about the Eucharist? How does John make a connection with washing feet and the bread and wine? Well, the he just about hits us over the head with this one: John’s account of the Last Supper does not even MENTION the bread or cup or the words “this is my body” or “this is my blood.” Instead, at the point of the meal where the other gospels have Jesus taking the bread and the wine and instituting the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist John shows us Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. And it is this story that the Church uses, as we’ve just seen, as the Gospel reading for Holy Thursday.
So, John, in his usual fashion, gives us not the account of Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist but rather the deeper MEANING of the Eucharist: loving service of one another. And this brings us to our next symbolic reference in this passage: Loving service of one another.
JESUS’ SACRIFICE ON THE CROSSIn giving us the Eucharist Jesus said, “this is my body given up for you” and “this is my blood poured out.” So in the same way Jesus’ example of humility and service in the washing of the feet is also a symbolic giving of himself that that reflects and foreshadows his self-giving death on the cross.
So far, then, we’ve seen how John has linked together in the washing of the feet the themes of the Easter sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which Jesus gives himself to us under the appearance of the bread and the wine, and the sacrificial death of Jesus on Calvary.
Caesarius of Arles, a sixth-century bishop, said in a Holy Thursday sermon how sad and disappointed he was to see Christians abandoning the custom of washing one another’s feet. He regretted the loss of such a powerful and beautiful sign of Christ-like humility and service.
So if we twenty-first century Christians are not going to literally wash one another’s feet, what does Christ’s command mean for you and me? What is this gospel passage telling us tonight about how to live as better Christians?
Well, it might help if we remember that at the time of Christ, the act of washing someone else’s feet was about the most menial and humbling thing one could imagine. No wonder Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet!
Washing feet was slave’s work. In fact, if a servant was Jewish, his Jewish master could not require him or her to wash people’s feet. You can imagine a Jew applying for a servant’s position the way a housekeeper or a maid might today: Today’s housecleaning applicant will warn “I don’t do windows.” But back then it wasn’t “I don’t do windows,” it was “I’m Jewish, I don’t do feet.”
It was such a demeaning task that he or she couldn’t be asked to perform it. Yet this is exactly what we see Jesus doing in tonight’s gospel story: Jesus “DOES FEET.”
And now we can see the practical message start to take shape for us: Jesus makes himself as humble as the lowest servant by “doing feet” at the Last Supper, and then asks us his followers to “do feet” as well. But still, what does that mean? What does that look like for you and me in our everyday lives?
Back in 1998 I wrote a book, A Saint on Every Corner, that included a chapter on the Holy Thursday ritual of the washing of the feet, and I wrote how it had become a reality in my life. Shortly after the book was published I received a letter from a nurse in Pottstown, Pennsylvania thanking me for writing the book and that chapter in particular. Here is part of what she wrote:
As a nursing supervisor I am often called to wash someone’s feet both physically and as a metaphor. Your description of your meeting with a problem student and his angry father in that chapter touched my heart.
I have just come from a difficult meeting with an upset family and, having read this chapter in your book about washing feet I was able to approach the meeting in a more gentle, Christ-like manner. What could have been awful became a time of grace!
Thank you! Sincerely …
It doesn’t really matter who it is, because tonight Jesus’ request sounds loud and clear in the gospel: “I have given you an example so you should do this too: Love one another as I loved you.”
Lord Jesus, as we gather here on this most solemn and sacred night, we humbly ask you a special favor: When you present people to us wanting us to wash their feet, please help us to remember the beautiful and challenging example you give us tonight by washing your disciples’ feet. Help us in those difficult moments to see in our mind’s eye the image of the ancient ritual that we are about to witness in a few moments: Abbot Melvin kneeling in front of some brothers and sisters to wash their feet.