For most people, the highlight of the liturgical celebration on Maundy Thursday is the washing of the feet. Even though it is the day we celebrate the commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus, it is the washing of the feet that comes to the mind of most people when you mention Maundy Thursday. It is most likely because the account of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples is read in the gospel and the re-enactment of that event in the liturgy. There is no reading from the gospel of the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples except the fact that Paul alludes to it in our Second Reading from the Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
The account of the washing of the feet is only recorded in the gospel of John and it is part of the farewell discourse. The synoptic gospels make no mention of the washing of the feet even though they record the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples. Though John has a lengthy description of the passion and death of Jesus, there is no mention of the event of the Last Supper as we have come to know. On the contrary, John considered it important to have this event recorded for his readers rather than the Last Supper. The foot-washing account in John 13 takes the place of the Last Supper account that fills the Synoptic Gospels. If our preoccupation today has been scrupulously concerned about whose feet is going to be washed (man or woman? adult or child? Christian or non-Christian?) and whether the Church permits it or not, then sadly we have missed the point. John’s purpose for including this significant event in his gospel transcends these distinctions that we tend to make.
The event of the washing of the feet done by Jesus was quite out of the ordinary on two fronts even though the act of washing the feet is customarily accepted at the time of Jesus. Firstly, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples during the meal when it would have normally preceded the meal – before coming to the meal; secondly, the act of washing the feet would have been performed by a servant or a group member with little status and not by the “Master and Teacher”.
The ‘out of the ordinary’ circumstances that surround the washing of the feet by Jesus indicates that He wasn’t just performing an act of ablution – it was a simple action but done at a significant occasion, with a profound message. Though being fully aware that He was their Master, Teacher and Lord, He voluntarily takes on a servant role – a model of self-giving service. The disciples did not fully understand what this event meant but they will understand later (v. 7). The role that Jesus takes on is key to understanding the Farewell Discourse in the gospel of John for it is the foot washing that starts off this discourse and finally glorified on the cross.
At the end of the event, Jesus makes this command to His disciples… “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15). There is a parallel command in the Synoptic Gospels set in the context of the Last Supper… “do this in memory of me”. This could be the bridge to linking the two events (foot washing and last supper).
As much as we are faithful to the celebration of the Eucharist, the act of self-giving service is crucial to the life of a disciple – to anyone who calls Him, Master, Teacher, and Lord. In the world that we live in, it is more likely that self-serving attitudes dominate rather than the attitude of self-giving – egoism more than altruism. As we prepare to enter into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is a great moment to reflect on how we make Jesus’ command to His disciples a reality in our daily living… are we self-serving or self-giving? Jesus wanted not only His disciples but also us as we re-enact this event two thousand years later, to transcend the purely ritualistic nature of His actions of foot washing and breaking bread. Like Him, to be self-giving disciples. How difficult is that?
In fact, it isn’t difficult at all to start on the road of being self-giving. Self-giving does not need extraordinary circumstances; it rather begins in the ordinariness of daily life. Henri Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World describes self-giving in daily living as follows: “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life.” Not just to those who would return the favour but especially to those who are in need the most – they are aplenty, all around us. This is something that we all can begin to do. Let us put aside our self-serving love and be transformed to self-giving disciples of Jesus as we “do this in memory” of Him.