As much as I know that I will never truly know the mind of Jesus, especially at moments like this, I am tempted to let my mind wander. After all, Jesus was human like us. He experienced his humanity just as we experience ours. So we have a window into the workings of his human mind and the movements of his human heart. And I love that that window gives us remarkable access to the very mind and heart of God.
As he sat at table with his disciples, Jesus knew the events that were about to transpire. He spoke of them several times before. The synoptic gospels record at least three. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22) Remember that these words were recorded long after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. But at the time Jesus spoke them, who truly understood the magnitude of this premonition? The gospel of Luke recounts this event in chapter 9, and opposition to Jesus did not become a significant concern at least until chapter 22. So with his human mind and his human heart, he saw the darkness in the distance early on. But none of it would deter him from his purpose. He just went on teaching the crowds who came to listen to him. He went on healing their sick, blessing their children, and feeding them when they were hungry. And on the night before he entered his passion, he gathered at table with those closest to him to celebrate the most sacred of Israel’s festivals, the Passover.
We know Jesus and his apostles were quite familiar with the ritual meal. Unlike our modern-day practice as Christians of gathering in church whenever we celebrate a religious feast, the people of Israel then and still today observe many of their religious rituals at home, not in a synagogue or temple. We know that Jesus had instructed some of his apostles a few days back to go prepare the place where they would eat the Passover. We just refer to it as the Upper Room, probably because it was above ground level. But as they ate the ritual meal, taking the cup of wine, eating the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and telling the story of the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, Jesus made reference to present events as was the custom, expanding on the meaning of the symbols and the meal itself. The gospel writers made no mention of the usual elements—which were very familiar to those who were Jews, but unnecessary for everyone else—focusing instead on what Jesus added, elements that became the foundation of the Christian celebration of the Eucharist. “Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.’” (Lk 22:19-20)
But the gospel of John does it differently still. No mention is made of what took place at the meal, but it recounts in detail the washing of feet. In a group as large as theirs, several conversations would have been taking place simultaneously. But when without warning Jesus rose from supper, picked up a towel and basin, and began washing his disciples’ feet, they did not know what to think. The gospel tells us Peter alone spoke up. “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” (Jn 13:1—15) Jesus probably had washed the feet of a few of them before coming to Peter. So Peter had opportunity to raise an objection. “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus did not anticipate resistance, but he faced the objection head on. “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Jesus wanted to leave yet another profound lesson, one they would not soon forget. And this simple gesture would be remembered and repeated through the ages, becoming common practice in the Roman rite at least in monastic communities by the 7th century, and further modified in the 17th century to include the poor. In the United States, both women and men have participated in the ritual for many years. I’ve done it that way myself for 20 years, and I’m sure Pope Francis did it for even many more years before he was pope. And this year he has officially permitted it by decree.
Jesus explained it to them. “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” In a few hours he would be nailed to a cross, naked, bruised, and bleeding, exposed to the elements and in full view of the human traffic passing through the city gates, until he died of asphyxiation three hours later, and the final lesson he wanted to impart was that he washed his disciples’ feet? Maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong thing this whole time. Maybe we’ve missed the lesson all together. At least in recent years, the focus of many discussions has been whether women should be included in the ritual. In some places, those chosen for the ritual saw it as a great honor, especially where the pope himself or the local bishop would do the washing. Here at St. John and in other parishes I’ve served, it’s like pulling teeth just to get 12 people. It’s as if Peter actually won the argument with Jesus. So I am grateful for those who volunteered, even if someone actually volunteered you.
But have we heeded the more important lesson? “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” Are we as concerned that we imitate Jesus’ example of loving service? We can claim with confidence that the Catholic church is the world’s largest charitable institution serving the sick, educating the young, seeking out and advocating for the poor, the hungry, those in prison, the vulnerable, the elderly, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized. Jesus spoke to his friends collectively, but also to each of them personally. We know what the church is doing. What are we doing ourselves? How do we wash one another’s feet?” How do we as individuals take to heart and put into practice that one profound lesson Jesus left for us the night before he suffered and died? But I’m too young, or I’m too old. I’m too busy. I have more important responsibilities. I don’t drive. I have nothing. I prefer only to wash the pretty feet. Jesus did not show a preference for good looking feet over smelly, ugly feet. Whatever feet his disciples brought, he washed. Whatever feet people bring to us, those are the feet we must wash. And some of them will object, which is not reason enough for us to stop trying. Sometimes we need to work hard at making people feel welcome first, embracing their culture and gifts, walking alongside them on their journey. We would be picky, too, about who we let wash our feet.
So Jesus left us an everlasting memorial on this most holy night. We can all agree he gave us his Body and Blood as food. But he also left us a towel and a basin. Rocket science, it ain’t.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016