Lectio Divina: Holy Thursday
The Washing of the Feet
a) Initial Prayer
“When You speak, Lord, the nothingness beats in life: the dry bones become living persons, the desert flourishes… When I get ready to pray I feel dry, I do not know what to say. Evidently, I am not in harmony with Your will, my lips are not in tune with my heart, my heart does not make an effort to get in tune with yours. Renew my heart, purify my lips so that I can speak with You as You want me to, so that I can speak with others as You wish, so that I can speak with myself, with my interior world, as You wish”. (L. Renna).
b) The Reading of the Gospel
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. He 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."Simon Peter said to him,"Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well."Jesus said to him,"Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all."For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, "Not all of you are clean."So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he 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. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."
c) Moments of prayerful silence
In a loving listening, words are not necessary, because silence also speaks and communicates love.
a) Preamble to the Passover of Jesus
The passage of the Gospel of today is inserted in a literary whole which includes chapters 13-17. At the beginning we have the account of the Last Supper which Jesus shares with His disciples, during which He fulfills the gesture of the washing of the feet (13:1-30). Then Jesus interweaves a long dialogue of farewell with His disciples (13:31 – 14, 31). Chapters 15-17 have the function to further deepen the previous discourse of the Master. Immediately after this, Jesus is arrested (18:1-11). In any case, these events narrated in 13:17,26 are joined in 13:1 with the Passover of Jesus. It is interesting to note this last annotation: from 12:1 the Passover is no longer called the Passover of the Jews, but of Jesus. From now on, it is He, the Lamb of God who will liberate people from sin. The Passover of Jesus is one that aims to liberate us: a new exodus which permits us to go from darkness to light (8:12), and which will bear life and feast in humanity (7:37).
Jesus is aware that He is about to conclude His journey toward the Father and, therefore He is about to bring to an end His personal and definitive exodus. Such a passage, going to the Father, takes place through the Cross, the central moment in which Jesus will surrender His life for the good of all humanity.
It is striking when the reader becomes aware how the Evangelist John knows how to present the person of Jesus well, while He is aware of the last events of His life and therefore, of His mission. So as to affirm that Jesus is not crushed or overcome by the events which threaten His life, but that He is ready to give His life. Before, the Evangelist has remarked that His hour had not arrived; but now in the account of the washing of the feet He says that He is aware that His hour is close at hand. Such a conscience is at the basis of the expression of John: “After having loved those who were His in the world, He loved them to the end” (v. 1). Love for “His own”, for those who form the new community, has been evident while He was with them, but it will shine in an eminent way in His death. Jesus shows such a love in the gesture of the washing of the feet, which in its symbolical value shows the continuous love which is expressed in service.
b) The washing of the feet
Jesus is at an ordinary supper with His disciples. He is fully conscious of the mission which the Father has entrusted to Him: the salvation of humanity depends on Him. With such an awareness He wishes to show “to His own”, through the washing of the feet, how the work of salvation of the Father is fulfilled and to indicate in such a gesture the surrender of His life for the salvation of all. It is the will of Jesus that we be saved, and a longing desire leads Him to give up His life and to surrender. He is aware that the Father gives Jesus complete freedom of action.
Besides, Jesus knows that His true provenance and the goal of His itinerary is God; He knows that His death on the Cross, the maximum expression of His love, is the last moment of His journey of salvation. His death is an “exodus”; it is the climax of His victory over death, in His surrender (giving His life) Jesus reveals to us the presence of God as the fullness of life and exemption from death.
With this full consciousness of His identity and of His complete liberty Jesus is prepared to fulfill the great and humble gesture of the washing of the feet. Such a gesture of love is described with a great number of verbs (eight) which render the scene absorbing, enthralling and full of significance. The Evangelist, in presenting the last action of Jesus toward His own, uses this rhetorical figure of the accumulation of verbs without repeating himself in order that such a gesture remains impressed in the heart and mind of His disciples and of every reader and in order that a commandment may always be remembered, not forgotten. The gesture fulfilled by Jesus intends to show that true love is expressed in tangible actions of service. Jesus removes His garments and ties around His waist a towel or apron, a symbol of service. He shows them that love is expressed in service, in giving one’s life for others as He has done.
At the time of Jesus the washing of the feet was a gesture which expressed hospitality and welcome towards the guests. In an ordinary way it was done by a slave or also by the wife, and also the daughters toward their father. Besides, it was the custom that such a rite of the washing of the feet should be done before they sat at table and not during the meal. Such an insertion of Jesus’ action intends to stress or underline how singular or significant His gesture was.
And thus, Jesus gets down to wash the feet of His disciples. The repeated use of the apron which Jesus tied around His waist underlines the attitude of service which is a permanent attribute of the person of Jesus. In fact, when He finishes the washing of the feet, Jesus does not take off the towel which He used as an apron. Such a detail intends to underline that the service-love does not end with His death. This minute detail shows the intention of the Evangelist to underline the significance and importance of the gesture of Jesus. By washing the feet of His disciples Jesus intends to show them His love, which is one with that of the Father (10:30.38). This image with which Jesus reveals God is really shocking: He is not a sovereign who resides exclusively in Heaven, but He presents himself as the servant of humanity in order to raise it to the divine level. From this divine service flows, for the community of believers, that liberty which comes from the love which renders all its members as “lords” (free) because they are servants. It is like saying that only liberty creates the true love. From now on, service which the believers will render to others will have the purpose of restoring the relationship among people in whom equality and liberty are a consequence of the practice of reciprocal service. Jesus, with His gesture intends to show that any domination over another is contrary to the attitude of God who, instead, serves people to raise them to himself. The pretension of superiority of one person over another no longer has any sense, because the community founded by Jesus does not have any pyramidal characteristics, but horizontal dimensions, in which each one is at the service of others, following the example of God and of Jesus.
In synthesis, the gesture which Jesus fulfilled expresses the following values: the love toward brothers and sisters demands expression in fraternal acceptance, hospitality, and permanent service.
c) Peter’s Resistance
The reaction of Peter before the gesture of Jesus is expressed in attitudes of surprise and protest. There is also a change in the way in which he related to Jesus: Peter calls Him “Lord” (13:6). In such a title Jesus is recognized as having a level of superiority which is in conflict with the “washing” of the feet, an action which belongs, instead, to an inferior subject. The protest is expressed energetically by the words: “Are You going to wash my feet?” In Peter’s eyes this humiliating gesture of the washing of the feet seemed to him as an inversion of values which regulate the relationship between Jesus and others: the first one is the Master, Peter is a subject. Peter disapproves the equality which Jesus wants to create among people.
To such misunderstanding Jesus responds inviting Peter to accept the sense of washing his feet as a witness of His love toward him. More precisely, He wants to offer him a concrete proof of how He and the Father love him.
But Peter in his reaction does not give in: he categorically refuses that Jesus should get down at his feet. It is not acceptable that Jesus abandons His position of superiority to render himself equal to His disciples. Such an idea of the Master disorientates Peter and leads him to protest. Not accepting the service of love of his Master, he neither accepts that He dies on the cross for him (12:34; 13:37). It seems to say that Peter is far away from understanding what is true love, and such an obstacle is an impediment so that Jesus can show it to him by His action.
In the mean time, if Peter is not ready to share the dynamics of love which manifests itself in reciprocal service he cannot share the friendship with Jesus and truly runs the risk of excluding himself.
Following the admonition of Jesus “If I do not wash you, you can have no share with Me” (v. 8), Peter adheres to the threatening words of the Master, but without accepting the profound sense of the action of Jesus. He shows himself open, ready to let Jesus wash his feet, not only the feet, but also his hands and head. It seems that it is easier for Peter to accept Jesus’ gesture as an action of purification or ablution rather than as a service. But Jesus responds that the disciples have become pure (“clean”) at the moment when they accepted to allow themselves to be guided by the Word of the Master, rejecting that of the world. Peter and the disciples no longer need the Jewish rite of the purification but to allow themselves to have their feet washed by Jesus; or rather to allow themselves to be loved by Him, conferring them dignity and liberty.
d) The Memorial of Love
At the end of the washing of the feet Jesus intends to give His action a permanent validity for His community and at the same time to leave to it a memorial or commandment which should always regulate the fraternal relationships.
Jesus is the Lord, not in domination, but in so far as He communicates the love of the Father (His Spirit) which makes us children of God and qualified to imitate Jesus who freely gives His love to His own. Jesus intended to communicate such an interior attitude to His own, a love which does not exclude anyone, not even Judas who is about to betray Him. Therefore, if the disciples call Him Lord, they have to imitate Him; if they consider Him Master, they have to listen to Him.
e) Some questions to meditate on
- He got up from the table: How do you live the Eucharist? In a sedentary way or do you allow yourself to be moved to action by the fire of the love which you receive? Do you run the risk that the Eucharist in which you participate is lost in contemplative Narcissism, without leading to the commitment of solidarity and sharing?
- He removed His outer garments: when you go from the Eucharist to daily life, do you know how to remove the garments of your own benefit, your calculations, personal interests to allow yourself to be guided by an authentic love toward others?
- Taking a towel He wrapped it around His waist: this is the image of the “Church of the apron”. In the life of your family, of your ecclesial community, do you walk on the street of service? Are you directly involved in the service to the poor and to the least? Do you know how to see the face of Christ who asks to be served and loved in the poor?
a) Psalm 116 (114-115), 12-13; 15-16; 17-18
The Psalmist who finds himself in the time and in the presence of the liturgical assembly sings his sacrifice of thanksgiving. Voltaire who had a special predilection for v. 12 expressed himself as follows: “What can I offer to the Lord for all the gifts which He has given me?”
What return can I make to Yahweh
for His generosity to me?
I shall take up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of Yahweh.
Costly in Yahweh's sight
is the death of His faithful.
I beg You, Yahweh!
I am Your servant,
I am Your servant and my mother was Your servant;
You have undone my fetters.
I shall offer You a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of Yahweh.
I shall fulfill my vows to Yahweh,
witnessed by all His people
b) Final Prayer
Fascinated with the way in which God expressed His love toward His own, Origin prayed as follows:
Jesus, come, my feet are dirty.
Become a servant for me, pour the water in the basin;
come, wash my feet.
I know it, what I am saying is daring,
but I fear the threat of Your words:
“If I do not wash you,
you can have no share with me”.
Wash then my feet,
so that I may have a share with you.
(Homily 5 on Isaiah)
And Saint Ambrose having an ardent desire to correspond to the love of Jesus, expresses himself as follows:
Oh, my Lord Jesus,
allow me to wash Your sacred feet;
You got them dirty when You walked in my soul…
But where will I take the water from the fountain
to wash Your feet?
In lacking that
I only have the eyes to weep:
bathing Your feet with my tears,
do in such a way that I myself remain purified.
(Treatise on penance).