By Patrick Schmadeke
The Catholic Messenger
Jesus had a reputation for asking hard questions. In the Gospel reading for Holy Thursday, he does not fall short of this reputation. After washing the feet of his disciples he asks, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” (John 13:12) Do we today realize what Jesus has done for us?
Under normal circumstances, we would have witnessed the ritual foot washing during Holy Thursday Mass, imitating the model of humility Jesus provides. Jesus’ humility cut across the grain of the social arrangements and hierarchies of his own time, just as it cuts across the grain of the social expectations of our time, and more than likely, for all time. Washing the feet of another person would appear strange and out of place today. In Jesus’ own time, this would have been scandalous — this was the task of a slave.
Jesus, the Lord of Lords, flips the social norm on its head. Washing the feet of his disciples crossed a social boundary. This is confirmed by Peter’s initial reaction (13:8), which conveys surprise and offense. Here we see that Jesus does not try to dispose of social norms. Rather, he inverses them.
Jesus does the task of the slave. While this isolated action is scandalous, it is the rippling ramifications of this action that propel us onward and outward into a solidarity born of humility: “if I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you are bound to wash one another’s feet” (13:14).
The translation in the lectionary says that we “ought” to wash one another’s feet (13:14). But this might not quite catch the tenor of Jesus’ command. In Greek, Jesus says we are bound to, as in an oath, wash each other’s feet. We are, as links in a chain, bound together in an indelible relationship. The American poet Gwendolyn Brooks conveys such solidarity poignantly: “we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
We can also consider the examples Pope Francis has given us on Holy Thursday in recent years, which conveys this bond. In 2016, he washed the feet of 11 refugees (four Catholic, three Christian, three Muslims, and one Indian Hindu). In 2017, he washed the feet of 12 prisoners (including women and a Muslim man). In 2018, he washed the feet of 12 prisoners again (eight Catholics, two Muslims, one Buddhist, and one Orthodox Christian). In 2019, he again washed the feet of 12 prisoners. As the leader of the Catholic Church, and the most important Christian figure on the planet, Pope Francis has modeled the hierarchy being turned on its head, just as Jesus did.
What does it mean to wash the feet of one another today? How can we wash the feet of one another through daily acts of service? Our response must incorporate idea and action, thought and deed, intellect and will. Most especially, it must bring us into communion and solidarity with those on the other side of the artificial social boundaries that keep us apart. This is the example that Jesus has given for us.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)