Actions speak louder than words! That was certainly true when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. This strange incident is sandwiched between two references concerning Judas’ outrageous betrayal of his master, Jesus. This literary device provides a key to our understanding Christ’s impending Passion, and what it means for us to be His true followers. In this way the evangelist not only emphasizes the stark contrast between the treachery of Judas and Christ’s loyal, devoted service, but also that of false and true discipleship!
Today’s Gospel begins with a meal, which is resonant of the Passover celebration of God delivering His people from slavery in Egypt. According to the Synoptic Gospels it was at that meal that Jesus celebrated the first Mass. There He offered His own Body and Blood as food and drink. In a different way He would make the same sacrificial gift of Himself on the cross. This meal renewed God’s saving covenant with His people, and they renewed their commitment to God and to each other. At that meal Jesus expressed the depth of His love for us. John tells us, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end,’ (Jn. 13.1). That love would take Him to the cross.
But, to explain His crucifixion, Jesus then expressed His love in a strange and shocking way. Rising from the table, He set about washing His disciples’ feet, which would have been dusty, hot, sweaty and smelly. Jesus proposed to perform what was considered to be a very menial and unpleasant task, usually carried out by a pagan slave. And yet that was precisely what Jesus insisted on doing. To free us from sin He assumed the role a pagan slave! In this He completely reversed the obvious master-disciple relationship. No wonder Peter protested!
But washing the feet of His disciples was so important that Jesus insisted, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me," ( Jn. 13. 8 ). Why? It has been suggested that this washing had baptismal overtones, and harked back to Christ’s telling Nicodemus that if we are to see the Kingdom of God we must be born from above, of water and the Spirit, (cf. Jn. 3. 3). But more precisely, from having his feet washed, Peter must learn the meaning of Christ’s Passion, and how we, His followers, must share in it. By performing the menial task of a slave Jesus showed that He had come to serve His heavenly Father and us. He would empty himself of His divine majesty and glory and become a servant, obedient to the shameful death on the cross. We, like Jesus, have been called to serve God and each other. Such service is not degrading, if it is given with love. The very opposite. Loving service brings out the best in us. Instead of being selfish and self-centred we respond to other people’s needs. At times that will demand painful sacrifices. The whole Christian community of the Church is called to follow Christ, the Suffering Servant of the Lord. That was the lesson Jesus wanted to drive home just before His Passion.
This loving service is summed up in the washing of the feet. That service was expressed most profoundly in the sacrifice of the cross, made present on our altars. With Christ, at every Mass, we should commit our whole lives to serving God and each other. We resolve to die to the selfish, self-indulgence of sin and to rise to the demands of a life of generous loving service. That is essential to being true followers of Christ and real members of God’s family.
Surprisingly, the washing of the feet provides the key for our understanding the meaning of the crucifixion, and also of our baptism, through which we share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in God’s own life. All this would only become clear after Christ’s resurrection.
Finally, like Peter, we must allow Jesus to serve us. We need the humility to accept His assistance. We can have no part with Him if we refuse to let Him help us. Quite simply, we can’t share in Christ’s work or get to heaven by our own efforts.