We Do Who We Are

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper


I don’t remember learning how to ride a bike. I know it happened because none of us are born knowing how. Still, I don’t remember what it was like not to know how. Like all the skills I had to learn, tying my shoelaces, saying “please” and “thank you,” praying grace before meals, there had to be a time before I knew how. I don’t remember what life was like before I could read and write, before I could walk and run, before I could use a phone, or tell time, or tell the truth, or let someone take a turn. Some skills are so basic, eventually we surpass their original purpose. We build on these skills and expand our experience and knowledge in learning and improving other tasks. Careers in business, education, healthcare, government, and service may have been planted in childhood and youth through the games we played, the choices we made, and the memorable example of awesome people in our lives.

Some skills eventually transition and we move on to others as we grow up. We no longer hold on to furniture after we learn to stand on our own feet and walk across the room. We no longer depend on others to tell us what music to listen to, and how to spend our free time, what we want on our pizza, how late we stay up, who we hang with, and what to wear. Okay, some of us could still use a little help with that last one. Skills we learn early shape us as we grow up, their quiet influence evident in our preferences and attitudes. I learned to look both ways before crossing the street. But I know now to look both ways before jumping into a heated discussion. Having six siblings, I learned to share out of necessity. But I learned also that sharing is an expression of kindness. We were warned about minding our own beeswax, but we develop a sensitivity for the welfare of others that helps us determine if and when to mind someone else’s beeswax. Some skills learned in youth become part of our daily routine by sheer force of habit, part of our basic sensibility. All the skills and habits we now possess, neatness and order, fiscal responsibility, regard for the feelings of others, emotional stability, care for the property of others, gratitude for kindness received, most of us learn early in life. And once rooted, they will define who we eventually become.

We are also defined early on by our practice of faith. Faith takes root in our lives depending on how it is rooted in the lives of the people who teach it to us. We learn through their example, even and especially when what they say and what they do are at odds. Many of us were immersed in a similar faith environment: the sign of the cross, grace before meals, prayers before bed, the rosary, stations of the cross, fish on Friday, confession on Saturday, mass on Sunday, the catechism, giving up candy for Lent, a portion of our allowance in the collection each week, even the purchase of pagan babies in India, China, and Africa. Whatever we did, these were really only visible expressions of what were supposedly greater spiritual values: love of God, love of neighbor, with focus on the poor and those in need, love for the church, her symbols and rituals, love for our Catholic identity despite our interesting quirks and curiosities.

But a question lingers about whether we have learned the essentials of our faith. The answer takes us back to scripture. Jesus clearly shows us what is most important. He got up from the meal, tied a towel around his waist, took a basin of water and began to wash his disciples’ feet. Despite Peter getting into an argument about Jesus washing his feet, the lesson was a hard pill to swallow. Jesus who is Lord and Master came to serve. But going farther, he commanded them, “You ought to wash each other’s feet.”

All our lives, other people have washed our feet, literally and figuratively. Our parents took care of us as children. Our teachers shared with us of their wisdom and experience. Our friends supported us in difficult times. They have washed our feet. In turn we serve our families. We welcome the stranger. We share food with the hungry. We visit those in prison and comfort the sick. We care for the young and the elderly. We listen to the brokenhearted. We attend the dying in their final hour. We, too, have washed other people’s feet. Foot-washing is not officially one of the 7 sacraments, yet its significance pervades the lives of true followers of Jesus. Each time we extend welcome, compassion, forgiveness, and service of any kind, we recall the Master’s instruction to wash each other’s feet. Service toward others is a skill we learn and perfect through practice. If our role models were servants first and foremost, and not merely celebrities and billionaires, washing each other’s feet would become second nature. And if we hope to pass on to our children a love for service and care for the needy, we teach it best by example, in the symbolic gesture of foot-washing and in intentionally reaching out each day to those who hurt, those who hunger, and those in need. We do who we are. And if practice makes perfect, we become true disciples of Jesus by doing as Jesus did every chance we get.

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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