“Master, are you going to wash my feet?” (John 13:6).
Exod 12:1-8, 11-14; Ps 116; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
Social distancing will deprive us of the communal dimensions of our Holy Week services in this Year of the Pandemic, but one ritual will be especially missed—the Holy Thursday washing of the feet. We will not see Pope Francis using this liturgical highpoint to wash and kiss the feet of immigrants or prisoners, both men and women, Catholics and non-Christians, people of many races and ethnicities. More personally, we will not be washing each other’s feet in our local parishes.
The scene in today’s Gospel is not unlike our own ritual. We understand Peter’s reluctance to let Jesus wash his feet. It is an awkward moment, removing our shoes and stockings, waiting in line, a random partner kneeling to hold our feet, pour the water, apply the towel, glancing up at us to acknowledge the intimacy of this action, perhaps by a stranger, or even a spouse or friend. We learn again that it is harder to be washed than to wash.
Our objections are not as dramatic or theological as Peter’s, for he knows he is being baptized into something he is not prepared for, unworthy of, drawn into an intimate bond with Jesus that will test him to the core and shatter his confidence and control. In a few hours Peter will deny he even knows the man kneeling before him, looking up at him and reassuring him that what he does not understand now he will understand later.
It may seem odd that on this Holy Thursday with its emphasis on the Eucharist that the Gospel of John does not include the words of institution. The ritual action that is our Communion is the washing of the feet. To touch the feet of another, to kneel in service and to be served, is to know ourselves as sharing our bodies in a way that the procession to receive the cup and the host does not impress as directly or intimately. But the symbolism of the bond is the same. We are all members of the one body of the crucified and risen Jesus.
Baptism draws us into something we are not prepared for, worthy of, or able to really understand until we have lived its implications. To follow Jesus means to imitate him in service and the sacrifice of our lives for others. Whether we experience this early or late, intensely or in the ordinary demands of daily life, Jesus will come for us, reminding us that because we have been washed, we have a part in his suffering that is needed to redeem the world. Then we will understand.