The Washing of the Feet
“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 do it, 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:
1 Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end. 2 They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, 4 and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; 5 he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 'Lord, are you going to wash my feet?' 7 Jesus answered, 'At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.' 8 'Never!' said Peter. 'You shall never wash my feet.' Jesus replied, 'If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.' Simon Peter said, 9 'Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!' 10 Jesus said, 'No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.' 11 He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, 'though not all of you are'. 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. 'Do you understand', he said, 'what I have done to you? 13 You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. 14 If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other's feet. 15 I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.
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 fulfils 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 deepen further 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 already 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 man from sin. The Passover of Jesus is one that aims to liberate man: a new exodus which permits 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 man.
It strikes the reader when he 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 man. It is the will of Jesus that man 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 fulfil 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 despoils himself of his garments and ties around his waist a towel or apron, symbol of service. More precisely, Jesus takes off his garments is an expression which expresses the significance of the gift of life. Which is the teaching which Jesus transmits to his disciples through this gesture? 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, concerning 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 will have finished 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 wish 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 man will have as its purpose that of restoring the relationship among men in whom equality and liberty are a consequence of the practice of reciprocal service. Jesus, with his gesture intends to show that any domination o tentative to prevail over man is contrary to the attitude of God who, instead, serves man to raise him to himself. Besides, the pretensions of superiority of one man over another, no longer have 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 the brothers demands to be expressed in fraternal acceptance, hospitality, that is, in 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 men: the first one is the Master, Peter is a subject. Peter disapproves the equality which Jesus wants to create among men.
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. According to Peter each one should carry out his own role, it is not possible to have a community or a society based on equality. 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 is as 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 runs the risk, truly, to exclude 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 the dimension of 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 question 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? Your commitment in favour of justice, of the poor, does it come from the habit of encountering Christ in the Eucharist, from the familiarity with him?
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
Costly in Yahweh's sight
I shall offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving
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.
And Saint Ambrose having an ardent desire to correspond to the love of Jesus, expresses himself as follows:
Oh, my Lord Jesus,
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