Neither Bystanders Nor Spectators
As we begin the commemoration of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, we are hit with many images, vivid images ranging from the Exodus account of the first Passover—how each household of Israel must procure a year-old unblemished male lamb, consume its roasted flesh at night while dressed for a long journey, and how its blood must mark their homes, to the account of the last supper—how the Lord Jesus on the night before he was handed over, took bread and wine, and after giving thanks, shared them with his disciples as his own Body and Blood, food and drink to remember him by until his return. But that iconic ritual we just completed—the washing of feet, a symbol of his own humility and service, which Jesus instructed his disciples to imitate, is what comes most into focus. In light of these high holy days that mark our liturgical calendar, we catch an intimate glimpse of the man in the spotlight who reminds us to avoid the spotlight, or at least to show us what the spotlight seldom shines on which most embodies what he was truly all about, so that we might witness, ponder, and live out in our own reality amidst the circumstances that swirl about us what we as his disciples should really be about.
I have struggled with the meaning of the ritual myself. Like some of you, I find that it is not easy having someone else wash my feet. When I wash my own feet, it is simply a matter of hygiene, and it is something I do quietly and in private. It doesn’t even merit a mention in casual conversation. When someone else is washing my feet, it is no longer quiet and private. It becomes both intimate and intrusive, ordinary and transcendent, an act of vulnerability as well as bluster, a reluctant acknowledgement that all eyes are on me while I am severely tempted to crawl under a rock and die. So I can understand Peter’s objection. “You will never wash my feet.” Then I can see Jesus looking up at Peter, giving him that look, and telling him, “This is not about you. And as we continue to discuss this, it becomes more and more about you.”
Instead, it is all about the person of Jesus, everything we know about him, who he truly is, and consequently, who we are and who we are called to be because of him. And as I think about this more, I realize there was no one else with them in that room. When we wash feet on Holy Thursday, we have bystanders and spectators, all of you whose feet didn’t get washed for one reason or another. And you thought you’d just get away with that, didn’t you? Every one of you in the pews who just watched the ritual washing of feet tonight, wassup? A few individuals were involved in the ritual, the volunteers who got their feet washed, the altar ministers, even the musicians who accompanied the singing. I get that they could very easily have gotten caught up in their role, because direct contact with ritual can demand intense focus. So they are just now wrestling with their thoughts. But the rest of you, you had a choice. You could have embraced the symbol in that very moment because God has something amazing to say, or you escaped to somewhere else, and ignored the symbol staring at you, choosing instead to wait for me to say something to get you going. Yeah, that.
On Palm Sunday as Jesus entered Jerusalem amid the crowds and his disciples waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” there were bystanders and spectators. On Good Friday as he hung on the cross at the place called Golgotha, there were bystanders and spectators. But not the night before in the upper room where they celebrated the Passover. There were only two kinds of people there, those who washed feet and those whose feet were washed.
In some parishes in the diocese for many years on Holy Thursday, the priest would wash the feet of one person, and then get his feet washed in return. Then the rest of the congregation would take turns washing each other’s feet and getting their own feet washed. I imagine there were probably a lot of letters and phone calls to and from the bishop’s office about it because that’s not what it says in the book to do. And that’s not what they do in Rome. So eventually, the practice just came to an end. But the idea has stayed with me. I can see how we should do as it says in the book, because it is what the gospel said happened, and there is something about ritual that transcends the here and now. So instead of modifying the ritual, we should at least acknowledge that it challenges us to take an important lesson into daily life. Jesus told his apostles they should wash each other’s feet. He meant it literally, I’m sure, meaning they should do just as he did, although none of them took him up on it. And he meant it figuratively as well, that is, they should be servants to one another in as many ways as possible.
The connection isn’t always obvious, but we wash each other’s feet all the time. When we assist our own family members in their daily tasks, preparing meals, setting the table, tidying up, helping with homework, running errands, being present—we wash each other’s feet. When we assist our friends and co-workers, shouldering our part of a task, extending ourselves more than is required of us, volunteering when we see a need, being present, showing compassion, kindness, deference, and patience—we wash each other’s feet. When we assist strangers and the general public, helping people carry their things or cross the street, letting others get a turn before us, making room when it’s a tight fit, holding the door, extending courtesy, a welcoming smile, a nod, a handshake—we wash each other’s feet. When we go out of our way to find people in need, at soup kitchens, food pantries, clothes closets, at nursing homes and hospitals, at recreational venues like public libraries and theaters, restaurants and sporting events, when we respond to our neighbor’s most pressing needs in times of hardship and tragedy, finding the lost, caring for the injured, comforting the children—we wash each other’s feet. What is most striking to me is that in each and every occasion, there is always someone whose feet needs washing. And it is our task as Jesus told his apostles to wash each other’s feet. There shouldn’t be any bystanders and spectators. Those who call themselves disciples and followers of Jesus need to be washing other people’s feet.
On the night before he suffered and died, Jesus commanded his apostles to love one another. Then he washed their feet. And then he offered himself as a holocaust for all the human family, to bring about our reconciliation with God and with one another. In this Jesus showed us what he was about. And he also showed us what we are about, we who claim to be his disciples. All he promised us was the Father’s love. If we were expecting some other reward, we would be gravely disappointed. Wash each other’s feet, he said. So there can be neither bystanders nor spectators among us. Yeah, that.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015