Some years ago, at a school in western Sydney, just before the Easter vacation, there was a customary Holy Thursday ceremony during which the Principal washed the feet of the newly inducted Student Representative Council.
One particular year, when the Chaplain and the Religious Education Coordinator were organising the ceremony, during preparation time the day before, the SRC made a formal representation to the Principal, outrightly refusing to have their feet washed, claiming that such an action was degrading, beneath the Principal’s dignity, and far too lowly a gesture to perform, given his status and position. The Chaplain, REC and the Principal needed to do a lot of talking in order to persuade them and bring them round. In a way, the student’s objection was understandable. They mostly came from cultures of strict authority lines with a clear hierarchy of roles and expectations.
In Jewish society, at the time of Jesus, there were similar lines of demarcation, especially between the heads of households and their servants. It was for the servants to remove the sandals and wash the dusty, dirty feet of house guests. The roads and streets of Palestine, with human and animal traffic, and no footpaths or gutters, were not clean. It is not difficult to imagine, then, like the school SRC, how startled and shocked the disciples were, as represented in Peter, when Jesus stooped and began to wash their feet.
This action would have utterly stunned and confounded those attending the Last Supper – all the more so, when we consider that a number of them on an earlier occasion were arguing and squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest among them, and who would sit where in the coming reign of God.
In one startling and shocking action, Jesus turns all conventional human ways of relating on their head, and proclaims the new way of relating for all; namely, the way that is based upon loving service.
As if to underline the point, Jesus, after the ritual, asks them if they have understood what he has done. “Do you really understand what I have done for you?” And in the lengthy discourse that follows in John’s gospel, we see Jesus spelling out the meaning of this action of the washing of the feet in relation to the meaning and purpose of his life. In this discourse, Jesus goes over his whole life’s ministry with his disciples, to reveal the Father’s love for all, embracing the muddied and the sullied, through a life of selfless giving and love.
The new dispensation that Jesus establishes in this simple and shocking gesture is, then, as dramatic as the very act of the Passover where Israel, as indicated in the first reading of the Holy Thursday liturgy, is to be led by God from slavery to freedom. In the act of washing the soiled feet of our humanity, Jesus is leading us from the slavery of selfishness to the establishment and freedom of a new way of relating founded on humble, loving service.
Jesus is dignifying every person with a new level of respect, based precisely on this loving service to be accorded to each, and on account of the Father’s love for all. The point is well illustrated when during his discourse Jesus says:
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant
does not know what the master is doing;
I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything
that I have heard from my Father. [John 15:15]
This new way of relating, then, is to be marked by a common friendship in the Lord, based on loving service of one another and others.
The impact of this new way – what Jesus wants from his disciples – is heightened and all the more challenging when we consider that this example of feet washing does not take place around the gathering of a warm, cosy, mutually re-enforcing and admiring group of friends but rather, as we know, in the midst of competitive talk about position and privilege, in talk about betrayal, denial, and in the midst of much confusion, especially as the cloak of encroaching darkness, suffering, abandonment and death draws nearer.
It is precisely in the midst of and out of such frail humanity that loving service is to be rendered, as Jesus so powerfully and strikingly witnesses to when he goes to his death on Good Friday.
And left on our own, certainly we would not be up to this new way of relating that Jesus has enjoined on his disciples, and on anyone who would be his disciple. It is why the gift of Jesus’ self to us in the Eucharist is so central to all our efforts at service and love.
It is, then, to the food of the Eucharist at the Lord’s table that we turn on Holy Thursday night, to be nourished, energised, strengthened and sustained to undertake what Jesus beckons in his simple, humble and yet shocking gesture, which he performs at his Last Supper.
Fr Brendan Kelly SJ