Maundy Thursday 2016
"It was before the festival of Passover, and Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father. He had always loved those who were his own in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was."
St John begins his account of the Passion, a narrative that will take up a third of his gospel, with the washing of the disciples' feet. It is a living parable, in which Jesus demonstrates the true meaning of his life. Like all parables, it invites us to contemplate the mystery of Christ and what that means for us. The washing of the feet turns our understanding of God upside down, for the Master becomes a slave, showing his disciples that this is the only way in which they can follow him and become what God wants them to be. "If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me," Jesus says to Peter. Let us take a closer look.
The first thing we notice is the presence of Judas at table with Jesus and the others. The devil has already put it into his mind to betray Jesus, but he is still there with the disciples, and Jesus will wash his feet too. Jesus does not judge us, but bestows his gifts lavishly on us all, even if we have it in mind to betray him. Unfortunately, Judas learns nothing from the humility of Jesus. Filled with fear and despair, he will commit suicide, unable to accept that Jesus still loves him and longs to forgive and save him.
Then Jesus gets up from the table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel round his waist, pours water into a basin and begins to wash his disciples' feet. What Jesus did that night was something quite extraordinary, in fact, revolutionary. It was no ordinary washing of feet, certainly not the usual ritual offered to travellers and guests even today in many cultures and societies. Now a Jewish servant might wash the feet of his master and of his master's family and guests. It's a very intimate thing to do. Who washes your feet? Whose feet do you wash? Only a Roman slave would take off his outer garment and set about washing people's feet in his tunic, a sort of undershirt: it wasn't usual in a Jewish household. Moreover, Jesus himself pours water into the bowl, and that was woman's work. His actions turn the world on its head. The disciples had never really understood what he was telling them about himself: would tonight be any different?
When he comes to Peter, there's bound to be trouble. Peter is a proud, outspoken man, never afraid to confront and question Jesus. "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" The English translation is rather weak and doesn't convey the power of the Greek. "What? YOU wash MY feet? Are you out of your mind?" St John Chrysostom tells us that the words express Peter's love, but that it's a defective love. It lacks the humility illustrated in what Jesus is doing. In Peter's response we see pride and self-will, the very causes of sin, for which only the Cross can atone. Peter still has that "get-thee-behind-me-Satan" syndrome and he still doesn't understand.
Jesus knows that what he's doing is bewildering, almost scandalous, for the disciples. "At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand." Only after the Resurrection will they begin to understand that in the Church, the Body of Christ, there can be no room for those who refuse to be cleansed by his atoning death and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, for it is into his death that we are baptised. Likewise, only afterwards will they come to understand that communion with Christ depends on celebrating and entering into the great Sacrament of love, the Eucharistic sacrifice, with all its practical implications of mercy and charity.
Yet, even now, as their understanding fails them, Jesus tells them that their love, like his, must go beyond all limits. Once he had taught them to forgive, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." Now he says, "If I, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet." Because they have been redeemed by the death of the Servant Son of God, they must show their gratitude in service to others, a service of love and sacrifice. We are called in Christ to be ministers of the love of God in all patience and humility. Only through love can we die with Christ, so as to rise and live with him, and there can be no true love without taking up the Cross of Jesus.
May the good Lord grant us all the grace to follow his example in loving others, without exception, just as he has loved us. Amen