In his Gospel, the evangelist John describes a poignant scene as Jesus celebrates his final Passover meal.
Jesus… got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him… After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, “… I, your Teacher, have washed your feet. So, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you.” – John 13:14-15
Jesus, A Pilgrimage
Many years ago, I read Jesuit James Martin’s excellent book Jesus, A Pilgrimage. It had a profound impact on me. His discussion of the Last Supper – which Christian’s around the world remember his very night – remains with me. I recall it not just today, but frequently throughout the year.
“Jesus’s odd gesture [washing the disciples’ feet],” he writes, “offers the disciples a symbol of service and self-gift, prefiguring the total at of service and self-gift that comes with his death… he challenges them to do the same for each other and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; nobody is above or below in any way… Whenever I hear this reading… I never fail to think how different Christian churches would be if… we celebrated the Foot Washing… What a reminder it would be to all of us – priests included – that this is what Christ asked us to do… How different would our churches be if we modeled a ministry of humble service on Sundays…”
Act Like Jesus
I believe this singular act of humble servitude sums up one of the basic cores of Jesus’s teachings: we are called to serve, not to be served. I do not believe we are called to worship Jesus; we are called to act like Jesus, which logically leads us into service of others.
It humors me to think that at Lent, my Catholic church invites its constituents to practice the three Pillars of Lent: Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting. I am humored because I believe it is something each of us can and should do throughout the year: pray always, give what we can do our needy brothers and sisters, and consume no more than what we need, not what we want (and to apply the excess to our almsgiving). To limit these three activities to the 40 days of Lent (46 if you include the Sundays) is not acting like Jesus. He practiced these things 24/7.
I agree with Father Martin. If we celebrated foot washing every Sunday at Mass, we would receive a constant reminder of what we can do to lead better lives in service of all creation to make the world a better place to be.
Be a servant.