One of the key focal points of the last supper narrative in the Gospel of John is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Washing feet was certainly a custom in the ancient Near East, for either people walked bare foot or wore sandals. In either event, people’s feet became quite sore and dirty getting from here to there. Washing of the feet was a hospitable way to welcome guests into one’s home, though this action was the most menial of tasks and often performed by slaves or servants.
After washing his disciples’ feet and sitting down, Jesus said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:13-14). Jesus is sharing with those who will carry on his message and ministry that they are not to feel so high and mighty that they are above other’s in their being called to follow him. The Apostles, those who are sent by Jesus, are to look at their ministry as seeking how best to serve others, not seeking to be served themselves.
This evening at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, select members of the parish will come up and have a foot washed by the priests, following the model set by Jesus washing his disciples feet. This is to remind all of us, as members of the Church that we are all an integral part of the Body of Christ. We are at our best when we are willing to serve one another, support one another, and lift one another up. This is to be true when all is well and rosy, in addition to when conflict and challenges arise in the messiness of daily life.
Pope Francis has stepped the imagery of this practice up. In his first year as Pope, he washed the feet of those who were staying in a youth detention center, including women and Muslims. He has washed the feet of people of other faith traditions, prisoners, the elderly and disabled, as well as migrants. This year Pope Francis will be washing the feet of twelve inmates who are housed in the Casa Circondariale di Velletri prison.
The best way we can exemplify Jesus’ lesson of washing his disciple’s feet is to resist the temptation of pride. Our life is not about us, we are not the center of the universe. We need to walk away from the table presenting a buffet of the false substitutes for God: pleasure, wealth, fame and power. Everything really does not revolve around us.
A disciple of Jesus who got this right is the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who though he may not have written the following words, certainly embodied them in the way he lived his life. A good way we can fast from pride, to figuratively wash one others feet is when we: “not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying [to our self] that we are born to eternal life.”
Jesus never tires of loving, forgiving, and serving us, may we strive to do the same in our encounter and willingness to accompany one other.
Words quoted from Peace Prayer of St Francis. History and words of prayer can be accessed at: https://franciscan-archive.org/patriarcha/peace.html