Tonight, we arrive at the point in our journey of Holy Week where we gather around the table. Together we commemorate and remember a meal shared, not only by Jesus and his disciples on the night before he died but shared by our ancestors for generations. And we are reminded of our call to not only continue to gather as a community here in this place, but to go out into the world and share communion with those who are in pain, those who are lost, those who are forgotten.
If we needed another reminder of our call to serve others, we find it in tonight’s reading from John’s gospel. Once again, as he had done often during his earthly ministry, Jesus surprises everyone. No one expected this man they had come to know as a prophet, their teacher, their master, their Lord, to wrap a towel around his waist, kneel before each of them and proceed to wash their feet. In this act, Jesus provided his friends with a model of how their life and ministry should proceed in the future, without him. That ministry would of course include much more than foot washing. Jesus didn’t just offer a how-to demonstration on how to wash feet. He was showing his disciples, and all of us, how to lead, how to minister to each other, how to be like Christ in the midst of community.
It’s not surprising that such an act—the washing of feet—causes controversy. The first followers of Jesus were shocked by the idea. It was counter-cultural then, for a leader of great esteem to take such an action. And it’s counter-cultural now, for Pope Francis to visit prisons and homeless shelters and other places, washing the feet of those on the margins. Such a humble act can be difficult to understand in our current context. Yet, by washing the feet of men and women—and those from faith traditions other than Christianity—the Holy Father has demonstrated for us each year what it truly means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. In washing someone else’s feet, the servant leader is not only reminded of his or her own humanity, but of the humanity of the other, the one whose feet lay in a basin before them. And by taking such an action this night, the church gathered in this place and throughout the world invites all of humanity to be cared for, embraced, listened to, and honored.
Pope Francis reflected on the ritual of foot washing while celebrating Mass on Holy Thursday in 2015:
From our feet, we can tell how the rest of our body is doing. The way we follow the Lord reveals how our heart is faring. The wounds on our feet, our sprains and our weariness, are signs of how we have followed Him, of the paths we have taken in seeking the lost sheep and in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters. The Lord washes us and cleanses us of all the dirt our feet have accumulated in following Him. This is something holy. Do not let your feet remain dirty. Like battle wounds, the Lord kisses them and washes away the grime of our labors.
It is indeed fitting that the church has placed the ritual of foot washing during this liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, and at the beginning of the celebration of the Lord’s final days. The reason for such timing is, of course, clear from John’s account of what happened that night so long ago. However, the church also reminds us that the celebration of the sacraments, particularly our regular celebration of Eucharist, goes hand in hand with our service to one another and the world outside of these walls. Our Eucharistic celebration is incomplete without humble acts of service, just as our acts of charity and our work for justice in the world are incomplete without our regular sharing of the bread and wine around the altar.
Our journey continues. We are now in the most sacred days, the three days, the Paschal Triduum. Tonight, we not only remember that gathering so long ago of friends at table, we gather together as friends, as disciples, around this table. And now, we prepare to be as Christ for one another in the washing of feet.
Originally published in “Loose-leaf Lectionary for Mass,” Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Copyright 2020. For subscription information, visit: https://litpress.org/loose-leaf-lectionary/index