The Washing of the Feet

The Gesture

Because the meaning of the Sacred Triduum with which each Lent concludes and which leads up to the celebration of the Lord's resurrection is so profound, it is sometimes well, during the last part of Lent, to begin already to focus on those very holy days, on what is commemorated on them, and on what it all should mean for us.

On Holy Thursday evening, at the Solemn Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Gospel passage that is read is the account of the Christ's Last Supper as recorded by Saint John. It begins, as we well know, by the Author of the Fourth Gospel speaking about the enduring love of Jesus for "His own in the world" and then recounts how Jesus washed the feet of His Apostles (John 13:1-15). Speaking about this passage, the renowned English martyr, Saint Thomas More, said, "In these words the holy Evangelist Saint John, the disciple that Jesus loved, declares here what manner of faithful Lover our holy Savior was. For unto those words He puts and forthwith joins the rehearsing of His bitter passion, beginning with His maundy, and therein His humble washing of His disciples' feet…"

The imitation of Christ's gesture as now carried out in the sacred liturgy is called the "mandatum", the Latin word for commandment, deriving from our Lord's words after He had finished washing the Apostles' feet: "Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Master, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, your Master and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do" (John 13:14-15).

First Meaning

That Gospel passage, as so much in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Saint John, has many layers of meaning. The first and obvious meaning is that Jesus humiliated Himself and undertook a job that was only done by a servant or slave. Feet shod in sandals, which was the usual thing in the Holy Land in New Testament times, always got dusty and dirty on unpaved roads and footpaths. It was customary, as a gesture of hospitality, always to offer guests who visited an opportunity to wash their feet (Luke 7:44). Occasionally in those days it was also customary evidently for the students of an important rabbi to wash his feet as a sign of special devotion and love. Jesus seems to have alluded to this custom in what He said.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria preached, "What could be stranger than this? What more awesome? He Who is clothed with light as with garment (Psalm 104:2-3) is girded with a towel. He Who binds up the waters in His clouds (Job 26:8) and Who sealed the abyss by His fearful name is bound with a girdle. He Who gathers together the waters of the sea as in a vessel (Psalm 33:7) now pours water into a basin. He Who covers the tops of the heavens with water washes in water the feet of His disciples. And, He Who has weighed the heavens with His palm and the earth with His three fingers (Isaiah 40:12) now wipes with undefiled palms the soles of His servants. He before Whom every knee must bow, of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Philippians 2:10) now kneels before His servants."

Another Significance

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, notes that this Gospel passage "expounds, by means of the symbolic gesture of the washing of the feet, the significance of the life and death of Jesus. From this viewpoint, the borderline between the life and death of Jesus fades. They appear as a single act in which Jesus, God's Son, washes the soiled feet of mankind. The Lord accepts and carries out the service of a slave, performing a humble task, the lowest in the world, to make us fit for the table, open to one another and to God, to accustom us to the worship of the nearness of God."

The Bishop of Rome goes on to say, "The action of the washing of the feet becomes for John the representation of what Jesus' whole life is, His rising from the table, setting aside His garment of glory, bending down to us in the mystery of forgiveness, the service of human life and death. The life and death of Jesus do not stand one alongside the other. The death of Jesus only goes to show the substance, the real content, of His life. Life and death become transparent and reveal the act of love to the last, an infinite love, which is the only true washing of mankind, the sole washing capable of enabling us to have communion with God, capable, that is, of making us free. The content of the account of the washing of the feet can be, therefore, summed up as follows: Jesus takes our part, even if it means suffering, in the divine-human act of love, which is thereby the purification, that is, the liberation of mankind."

Two Refusals

Pope Benedict XVI remarks that there seemed to be two refusals at the washing of the feet before the Last Supper began, that of Judas Iscariot and that of Saint Peter. Both represent powerful symbols. Judas, he says, "represents the person who does not want to be loved but who thinks only of possessing, who lives solely for material things.For this reason Saint Paul says that avarice is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), and Jesus teaches that we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). The camel will not go through the needle's eye (Mark 10:25)."

The Holy Father says that Saint Peter's refusal on the other hand represents "the devout person", that is, those "religious people who will not accept reality nor the fact that they too have need of pardon, that their feet too are dirty. The danger for religious people consists in their thinking that they have no need of God's goodness, and of not accepting grace. It is the danger of the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-32), the danger of the workmen of the first hour (Matthew 20:1-16), of those who murmur and are envious because God is good. In this perspective, to be a Christian means allowing our feet to be washed…."

What the Pope said seems to be emphasized by the fact that our divine Redeemer, as Saint John relates, undertook the humiliating act of washing feet, "knowing that the hour had come for Him to pass out of this world to the Father… knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going to God…" His approaching death added overwhelming poignancy to His gesture of deep humiliation. As Lent begins to fold into passiontide, that is, into these weeks immediately before Easter, let us anticipate with our meditation and contemplation the mystery of our salvation represented each year in course of our coming liturgical celebration of the Sacred Triduum. Christ's washing His Apostles' feet is a good place to begin.

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