Ask any Jew during these very days and they will tell you of the solemnity and reverence of their recollection of the Passover. Indeed, even now, Jews gather with a significant purpose and intense meaning as they join to offer the Passover meal. This has been their tradition for millennia—a tradition we’re recalling this evening in our own Catholic liturgy of the Lord’s Supper…His Passover meal with his disciples. Rich with symbolism and steeped in time-honored tradition, the sacred meal is stopped abruptly. What could possibly be more important than completing the offering of the four wines? What cannot wait until the consummation of the offering; what on earth or in heaven could prevent it’s fulfillment that night in the Upper Room? In essence, what and why is Jesus doing?
Let us recall all that we have seen and heard from the Lord Jesus prior to the Passover meal: how he ate with sinners, how he touched the unclean, how he associated with the outcast, the widow and the orphan. All of this while serving their most basic of needs: closeness and restoration with him and the love of the Father. Now let’s return to the Upper Room: he stands up from the table, removes his vestments and washes the feet of his followers.
In ancient Palestine, washing feet was a job reserved for slaves…and no wonder: it was one of the most unpleasant and humiliating tasks imaginable. People wore sandals or went barefoot, and the roads and paths they walked were the same ones used by herdsmen to drive their animals to market, as well as travelers and traders who moved their goods by ox and camel. The dirt, then, of these unpaved byways was blended with dung. Even a short jaunt would cake one’s sandal-exposed feet to with the pungent mix. And it was this earthly combination of elements, this unattractive mire that Jesus washed from the feet of his disciples. Jesus—God made man—the King of kings and Lord of the universe, lowered himself to the status of a slave and freely, willingly, and gladly “showed how perfect his love was” by this utterly self-forgetful act of service.
He didn’t have to do it. He certainly felt no natural pleasure doing it. But still he did it, at the most solemn moment of his ministry, when common sense would dictate that he be more focused on his coming passion. Why?
Because the mark of the Christian is self-forgetful love! Sin once divided the human family…and still does. But Christ, the conqueror of sin, reunites all people. You see, he has taken the first step toward us: He has come to save us by reaching out to us in loving service. He reaches out to us by serving us. The washing of his disciples’ feet is an icon of Jesus’ entire mission, and a revelation, a miniature portrait of the heart of God. Even when we are caked in dung, God sends His Son to wash us clean, to create in us a new heart of love, to restore us to purity and innocence. Sin is dirty, and so he washes sin away. And not only does he wash us, but he invites us to enter into this same service of self-forgetful love. In a sense, Jesus is saying, “if you wish to regain your place in the family of God, you are to enter into to this same dimension of self-forgetful love.” There is no other way: he says, “You should wash each other’s feet….”
For our fallen nature, such a lesson is extremely hard. For that very reason, Jesus taught it so insistently and so graphically. The cross of self-sacrifice is so offensive that it repels us, so Jesus climbed onto it before us to make sure that we make no mistake about what he means.
In these last couple of weeks, we’ve begun to hear the gentle words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. But more than this, we’ve witnessed his actions, his behavior, his example. He’s lowered himself time and again in order to show us how gospel words can and ought to become gospel actions. This very night, escaping pageantry and rich rites, Pope Francis has gone to a youth prison to wash the feet of incarcerated children. For one of them, a teenage boy, he was hopeful to meet a man who claimed, finally, to be his father! How profound an opportunity; how rich an encounter. And such can be ours as well: if we wash the feet of others in the same self-forgetful love of Christ, our encounter with the face of God may be just around the corner: in the forgotten, the unwanted and the unloved.
If we respond in such a way, true happiness will be ours.