JESUS WASHES THE FEET OF HIS DISCIPLES
Tonight, in this liturgy, we celebrate the institution of the very sacrament we are celebrating—the Eucharist. Secondly, we commemorate the night when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. And thirdly, we re-enact the washing of the feet as related to us in the Gospel of John. Today, I would like that we base our reflection on the significance of the washing of the feet.
Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knowing that his time had come to depart from this world and to return to the Father, having loved his own, he loved them fully, he loved them to the end. And then, in the middle of this rather solemn meal, he got up and started taking off his clothes — the outer garment. You can imagine the surprise of the disciples! (BIG)
Jesus is always surprising us. He doesn’t like it when we fall into little habits and routines. He shakes us up. Imagine the disciples looking at Jesus and saying, “What’s going on?” He fills a basin with water, puts a towel around his waist, and starts washing the feet of his disciples. He comes to Peter to wash Peter’s feet. Peter looks at him, “You? Wash my feet?”
“You cannot understand now, you shall understand later.” Jesus tells him. But Peter responds, “No! You shall never wash my feet!”
You see, Peter has a sense of hierarchy. There are people at the top and people at the bottom; that is how our society functions. He is quite prepared to wash the feet of Jesus. That is quite a normal and natural situation. And he would probably like people to wash his feet, in turn. That is to say, he has a sense of what all our societies are about — the vision of a pyramid. There are a few (BIG) people at the top, and an immense number right at the bottom. Those at the bottom are the useless ones — people with disabilities, the materially poor, maybe people who are mentally sick, people out of work, immigrants, etc.
Anyone of us would do as Peter did. His reaction is that of a loyal person. In reality, he had a lot of difficulties with Jesus. (We see this throughout the Gospels.)
What is more surprising is the reaction of Jesus. “If I cannot wash your feet, you shall have no more part with me.” These are very strong and powerful words. “If I cannot wash your feet, you cannot share in the Kingdom. The Kingdom will no longer be part of your heritage. You are no longer my disciple.” Peter panics. “Well then, not only my feet, my head and my hands!” Peter couldn’t imagine that Jesus was going to put such a stake on the washing of the feet.
Jesus washes their feet; and he says, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You called me Lord and Master … so I am. So if I have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have done this as an example for you.”
This is the only time that Jesus says, “I have done this as an example.” He asks us to wash each other’s feet. There is a great signification behind it.
1. We are to touch people with a deep respect — to touch them with tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, may become vehicles of the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh that our flesh may become word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value — that they are cherished and loved by God. Our hands are, in some mysterious way, are sources of revelation of communion. A baby trembles with happiness when touched by someone. A sick person feels better when the doctor actually touches him/her during the rounds. We love the touch of someone we cherish and hold in high esteem. We nearly do not was our hands when you shake hands with a celebrity—we enlarge the picture of such an occasion. Jesus, as he knelt down in front of the feet of his disciples, knows that tomorrow he will be dead. But he wants to have with each disciple a moment. Not just to say goodbye.
2. Jesus wants have contact with each one of them. Up until now he has just talked with the group. He wants to touch them — to touch their feet; to touch their bodies; to touch them with tenderness and love. Maybe to each one he says a word; maybe looks each one in the eye. There is a moment of communion. There is communion through the Body of Christ, where Jesus says “do this in memory of me.” But there is also this communion as he kneels at their feet. And later he will say “I have done this as an example for you. And what I have done to you, you must do one to another.” He was revealing to each that he is beautiful, chosen, and loved, in a special way. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t condemn; he cleanses with water. He just wants us to be people of the resurrection so that we can bring this gift to our broken world.
3. Jesus does not discriminate. Certainly, he knelt at the feet of Judas; it must have been a particularly moving time. You see Judas has already the thirty pieces of silver in his pocket; he has already decided that he will show the guards where Jesus spends the night. (Because you know, they couldn’t arrest Jesus in broad daylight or there would be a revolt.) In spite of this Jesus sort of tells him: “I want you to know that I love you.” And maybe the next day when Judas commits suicide, he remembers those eyes of Jesus. And maybe then his own eyes begin to be tearful. He remembers the love.
4. Jesus is the servant. “Jesus who didn’t keep equality with God as something to be held on jealously. But he emptied himself” (Phil 2:6). He became just a human being. And he humbled himself even more. This is the downward road of Jesus — going down and down and down. And he calls us to walk with him in that downward path.
We all know, how difficult it is to exercise authority and power. Either we are too controlling, and want everything to be in order — preventing people, or not permitting them to be empowered. We try in every way just to hold on to things. It is not easy to exercise authority. It is not easy to be parents — to help children to gradually come to freedom, and not to be there just to control them. Everyone one of us here, we exercise power in some way — as elder brothers/sisters, parents, teachers, civil servants, group leaders in tribal meetings or church groups, priests, etc. We know that it is not easy to exercise servant leadership — to really give ourselves to others; to help each one to rise up; to know when to make decisions. It is difficult.
Love is at the centre of Jesus’ action. Today, is saying, “I want you to exercise your authority in love.” As a good shepherd he gives his life for his sheep. He exercises authority with tenderness and love. He exercises authority in truth and in forgiveness. He is teaching us how he wants us to exercise authority — not from the top of the pedestal, but close to people. Confirm them; call them forth; empower them; help them to grow to freedom in truth.
6. Jesus, washing the feet of the disciples teaches us what authority is, using the image of human a body (c.f. 1Cor 12:15). That is why Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians, talks about the Church as Body. Where every person is different, and everyone is important. Where the eye is different from the foot and so on. And he goes on to say that those parts of the body which are the least presentable, the weakest, are necessary to the body and should be honored. Paul is saying something about people whom society considers to be lowly — they are necessary to the body of Christ, the Church, and they should be honored. “There are many parts, yet one body.” (1Cor 12:20).
He wants us to discover the Church as Body where each one is important — where we are all together as brothers and sisters in the same Body. God is hidden in the weak, and the poor, and the disabled. God is in the Body. He is saying, “be attentive to the littlest, to the weakest, to the poorest, to those who are the most broken; for I am living there.”
7. Jesus is inviting us not to enter into that competitive game of ‘I know more than you.’ or ‘I am richer and better than you are.’ or ‘My culture is better than your culture.’ But we are there to serve each other, to love each other.
- The washing of the feet is symbolic. It is not just to talk with people, but to recognize that their body is the Temple of God. Recognize that the Spirit of God is living in them. Recognize that their body is precious. Jesus insists on the washing of feet because our bodies are precious, Temples of the spirit. (1Cor 6:17)
We want to be in communion — with one another. Oneness is not exclusion of difference. Oneness is not fusion. St. Paul says we are all different. It is the recognition of difference. But that doesn’t mean to say that we crush difference.
We are, therefore, called to be in communion, to forgive each other, to serve each other, and to discover that together we are all called to walk the path of humility. We are all called to be small. This is the path which, as we walk with him we rise again to be a sign of resurrection in our world.