“I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). In my 20+ years as a priest, I have seen a variety of expressions when re-enacting the washing of the feet during the Holy Thursday Mass. There are some who have declined the invitation because they felt unworthy while others accept because they feel it is a privilege. There have been those who have shed tears while others have felt a great sense of joy.
There is one that I will never forget. Some years ago, an elderly woman was among the 12 who was willing to be part of the feet washing ritual. I remember her vividly because after I had washed her foot, in a low voice, she asked if I could also pour water and wash her knee as she has been having lots of pain recently. For a split second, I froze not knowing what to say or what to do… it was an unprecedented request. Eventually, I did do what she asked! We can assign many interpretations to this age-old ritual but for that elderly woman, it was a moment to ask God for healing. I saw a new perspective that day.
Why did Jesus have to wash the feet of His disciples? This was the task of a servant and not the master. Did Jesus want to bring a ‘new perspective’? One could assume that before the disciples entered the Room, a servant would have already washed their feet. There was no need for Jesus to wash the feet of His disciples. In fact, Jesus’ choice to wash the feet was not because they were unclean but to make a point about humble service towards others. The disciples did not understand this and that is why Peter objected to his feet being washed.
According to many scripture scholars, prior to the Last Supper, the disciples had been quarrelling as to who would be greatest in the kingdom which they thought Jesus was about to set up (cf. Luke 22:24-30). Jesus had to put them right and He wasn’t going to do it by a lengthy discourse. And so Jesus chooses a menial act to do so that the disciples will remember this forever… Jesus was going to “heal” His disciples… from their worldly ideas with values of the kingdom of God.
Despite the visual absence of the washing of feet, Jesus still demonstrates 3 key lessons for us in this time of the pandemic. Firstly, Jesus demonstrates boundless love. Jesus chooses to wash the feet of Judas, the one who is to betray Him. It is said that the worst pain in the world beyond the physical, is the betrayal of a friend. Knowing who His betrayer is, Jesus still shows His love for Judas. Therefore, even in our despair and brokenness, God sees our anxiety and loves us the same even when we may have doubts.
Secondly, Jesus demonstrates humility. In order to end the argument about who is the greatest, Jesus shows that the kingdom He came to establish is about humility through self-emptying (Gk. kenosis). Not only is He going to wash their feet but takes a step further by laying down His life for His disciples and for us on the cross. The kenosis of Jesus is the perfection of humility. Even in the midst of these uncertain times, and when all this is over, we must empty ourselves of our selfishness, greed, and pride. When we do this, we attach ourselves to Christ.
Thirdly, Jesus demonstrates servanthood. Since the washing of feet is a task of a servant, Jesus shows His disciples that service is the identity of His followers. Jesus made service central to His mission while He was on earth and therefore at the Last Supper, He wasn’t just going to do lip service to this concept of service. That is why we can neither be ‘arm-chair’ disciples nor ‘lip-service’ Christians. That is why when all this is over, we must translate the servanthood of Jesus in helping people rebuild their lives, even in small ways.
Even though we confined to our homes, the message still resounds, If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. This is Christ’s message to us. And so, today, it’s worth asking ourselves: Have we tried to imitate Christ? Whilst remaining at home this Easter Triduum, may we learn to love boundlessly, empty ourselves in humility and serve in the servanthood model of our Master, Jesus Christ… our new perspective this Easter. Amen.