Exodus 12:1-8 + 11-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13: 1-15
“I have given you an example, that as I have done, you also should do.”
Today in the church throughout the world an amazing thing is happening. From the highest position in the church – the Pope – to the lowliest curate in a parish in the poorest section of our world, the celebrant will take off his robes of honor and kneel before his congregation and wash their feet. I, your abbot, did likewise at our grand meal at noon time. What is the meaning of this? What is the example that Jesus gives us in the washing of the feet? Indeed, more than an example, it has become known as the commandment, the mandatum, through all subsequent ages. What is this commandment that Jesus gives us?
Quite often we think of the washing of the feet as an humiliation. Jesus is our teacher and master, our Lord and head — but he humbles himself and does the work of a slave so as to teach us our place in the scheme of things. In this way Jesus shows that he does not want us to get a swelled head, to think more of ourselves than is right. Even though we are better than others, Jesus wants us to eat humble pie for a while just to keep us in line. Is this what his example is all about? Is this the ‘commandment‘ he has given us?
Certainly it might have some elements of this. Can you imagine someone like Omar Gadhafi doing this? Or an Adolph Hitler or any other dictator in human history? Or the CEO of Exxon or General Motors or any other Fortune 500 company? I can’t, though I have to admit it would be a powerful symbol if one of them would do such. Yet when all is over and done, they still take back the power, prestige and authority to which they are accustomed. So as an act of humility, the washing of the feet has only passing significance.
What then is its meaning?
In an attempt to understand it, let us look at the readings we have heard through the lens of the question I proposed on Passion/Palm Sunday: ‘What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What does it mean to follow Jesus?’
On Sunday we saw it as being obedient to the very structure of life itself. And what is that structure? There is no life without death; there is no fulfillment in seeking one’s own happiness apart from others. We live by dying. We gain by losing. We become great by being the least of all. We reign by serving.
Today’s liturgy teaches us much the same reality — but with a different nuance. On Sunday we sought the will of the Father by giving way to each other, by deference to the desires of others. Today we are taught by Jesus that no one of us is better than another. The law of life: we gain by losing, is also the law of equality: we are all servants of the servants of God.
To follow Jesus in the context of today’s readings is to realize profoundly that we truly reign only by serving and to put that realization into effect by giving ourselves totally for others. This is the deepest meaning of the washing of the feet. We do not lower ourselves with the objective of one day being above others, but precisely by serving we are who we really are — in all our grandeur. This is to be a disciple of Jesus and to follow the example he has given to us. He truly served us to the very end, to the core of his being, to the utmost. That is, not just to the end of his earthly life, but through eternity Jesus continues to serve us. He is Lord and Master precisely in his serving. It never stops – even in heaven.
The washing of the feet was a sign and symbol of this. The reality is what we will soon celebrate as we gather around the altar. Jesus gives himself totally for us in bread and wine. By sharing in Jesus’ self-gift we find the strength and wherewithal to go and do likewise. To follow the example and model Jesus has given us. And it will never stop for us either. Heaven is selflessness — and selflessness is to think of others and to serve others before oneself.
Let us do so.