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The Depths of His Love

Thursday, March 28, 2002

Holy Thursday. Fr Peter Hunter preaches on the washing of feet as a sign of Christ's love for us.

In Gosford Park, the relationship between those above and below stairs is very interesting. Those above stairs often treat the servants as if they were completely summed up, defined in who they are, by being servants.

So to be seen cheating on your wife by one of the servants is of no concern, because nobody of any consequence knows about the infidelity but only a servant. One servant echoes this understanding of herself and says, "I am the perfect servant; I have no life."

Needless to say, this relationship of master and servant must be completely loveless while it remains on this level. No one can love a servant simply as a servant. To love someone, you have to see them as a human being, that is, as someone sharing a common life with you, in some way equal to you.

Nevertheless, Christ shows us by his example that being a Christian is precisely about being a servant. Since in baptism we are formed after the image of Christ we could say, I think, that Christians are defined in who they are by being servants.

Naturally, I am not saying that all of us are good at living up to what we've been made to be by our baptism. We are most of us very poor servants. But we can see, then, that sin is a sort of lie about ourselves. It is a turning away from what we already are in virtue of our baptism, servants of others.

The example of service in English country houses may convince us that thinking of ourselves as servants is not a very good way of understanding ourselves. That is because we are inclined to forget that all the examples of perfectly devoted service are all examples of great love. Since the Gospel is about the washing of the feet, think of a mother bathing her baby. The act of washing the baby is one of service, but also of tender love.

I am told that in Jesus' time, washing of the feet was one way in which a wife might express her love for her husband. Washing his feet showed that his body was to her as precious as her own.

So when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, he is not just being humble, he is being loving. His washing is a sign of the unity, of the bond, between him and the disciples. They are seen to be not servants but friends.

When Jesus responds to Peter,

If I do not wash you, you have no part in me,

we see the depth of the sign, that it is not simply about Christ showing us humility but an effective sign of the unity of the apostles with Jesus.

That is why St John can tell us about the washing of the feet in the place where the other Gospels give us the story of the institution of the Eucharist, the command to celebrate the sacrament of his body and blood. The washing of the feet shows us the same thing as we see in the Eucharist but in another way. Jesus brings about our unity, unity which would be impossible without him. Sin has divided us; only the love of God for us, love which overflows in our love for each other, could unite us.

We discover that the only way human beings can be united is by being united in love, and that the only way of being united in love is being united in Christ. No amount of social tinkering could ever get rid of the divisions that we see in society. I do not mean that social

programmes are all unimportant but that they are not enough. As Herbert McCabe says,

the transformation we need if we are to escape destruction is even more radical than revolution; it is forgiveness.

Holy Week is all about sin, about recognising its depth and power and so learning not to trivialize it, but also about seeing its overthrow, its defeat. Christ shows us by washing his disciples' feet the path we must take if we are to uproot sin in our lives. We are to show ourselves as servants, not just humble but loving.

This is only possible because God has first loved us. The omnipotent God has become our servant, allowed Himself to be summed up by His service. That is the extent of His great love.

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Readings

Exo 12:1-8,11-14
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-15

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