I have never had my feet washed on Holy Thursday. Mostly, I have avoided the invitation in some way or another. In the past weeks, however, I have had the opportunity to speak about the days of the Triduum in a few contexts. When I speak of Holy Thursday, I often ask my listeners: Given the choice, would you wash feet or allow your feet to be washed? What would you answer? Most people, in my not-official survey, seem to prefer to wash rather than be washed. This may be especially true of a minister. People say that he/she wants to follow the modeling of Jesus. I hear that, and I think that it captures part of my reasoning, but it does not express the whole truth. Part of me feels embarrassed at the thought of someone else washing my feet.
Yet, I keep getting drawn to the dialogue in which Peter resists the move of Jesus to wash his feet. Listen
[Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (Jn 13:6-8)
I suspect that we appreciate the horror of Peter in allowing his feet to be washed by his master. This practice might be delegated to a servant! Peter’s response to this possibility is typically “Peter” in its uncompromising expression. But, the words of Jesus contain even more force. His action was not a matter for debate! It expressed a lesson that could not be learned otherwise. No compromise in this washing of the feet!
Peter’s initial refusal to allow Jesus to minister to him in this way makes sense to me. He cannot, however, let it continue under the conditions that Jesus sets. On this year’s Holy Thursday, I have decided to have my feet washed. I need to think about the lesson offered to Peter. What lesson do I (you?) need to learn?
On this night before he died, Jesus had one last valuable opportunity to teach his disciples. I wonder how much he thought about what he might do or say. I wonder if he remembered the occasions on which he had his feet washed. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, had anointed his feet and dried them with her hair (Jn 12:3). When Jesus was in the home of a Pharisee, a “sinful woman” entered and washed his feet with her tears and dried then with her hair (Lk 7:36-38). What did these experiences mean to Jesus? Did they offer the foundation for his action in John’s story of the Last Supper? Do they point to the reason that Jesus insists to Peter that he must have his feet washed?
Make no mistake, the washing of the feet offers the important lesson dealing with the humble service of the poor. As Vincentians, we see and hear that instruction as we strive to do what Jesus did. Yet, another and related lesson emerges with no less significance for our Vincentian hearts. Let me suggest that that last line from the movie Monsieur Vincent expresses it. You will remember that Vincent has chosen to give some words of guidance to the Sister who goes to serve the marginalized for the first time. He tells her: “It is only with your love that the poor will forgive you for giving them bread.”
Having one’s feet washed offers us one way to understand those words.