Maundy Thursday (A) | Fr Isidore Clarke ponders the meaning of Jesus's actions at the Last Supper.
Actions certainly speak louder than words! That was especially true when Jesus washed the apostles’ feet. That simple gesture has so many layers of inter-related meanings.
The setting was of vital importance –a meal just before the celebration of the Passover, but resonant with its meaning. That, the greatest of Jewish festivals, celebrated God delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and leading them to freedom in the Promised Land. With each annual celebration God renewed His commitment to save His People; they, in their turn, renewed their commitment to be faithful to Him.
Jesus made the celebration of the Passover His own as He brought its promise to fulfilment. His hour had now come for Him to deliver the whole human race from its enslavement to sin and death; He would set us free to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.
How? Not by a magnificent display of power and force, but, as St. Paul tells, by "emptying Himself and taking the form of a slave, obedient even unto death on the cross," (Phil 2:8). As Jesus performed the menial task of washing His disciples’ dirty travel-worn feet the Creator of Heaven and Earth performed a service that was considered too degrading for any self-respecting Jew!
As He washed their feet He fulfilled several Old Testament roles. By emptying Himself of His divine glory and joining the human race Jesus became the Second Adam. His humble obedience to His Father’s will would reverse the damage caused by the First Adam’s rebellious pride. Since that obedience would take Him to death on the cross He would fulfil the role of the prophet Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the Lord. He would bear our iniquities; by His wounds we would be healed. It was precisely as servant that Jesus was saviour.
By washing Peter’s feet Jesus showed that He had come to serve, not to be served. Obedient, loving service –that was Jesus’ understanding of His Passion. That’s how He would save the world from the rebellious pride of sin. That’s what the washing of the feet proclaimed!
To underline that point St. John’s Gospel places a reference to Judas’ betrayal immediately before and after the washing of the feet. Surrounded by treachery, the crucified Jesus would be triumphant in His loyal obedience to His Heavenly Father.
But why did Jesus insist on washing Peter’s feet -why did He make it a necessary condition of true discipleship? Quite simply, Peter, and the rest of us, must accept Jesus on His own terms; we must welcome Him as our Servant-Saviour, if we are to enjoy the salvation He has won for us. Like someone who is sick we must allow Him, the doctor, to heal us. If we’re too proud to allow him to help us, we won’t be cured.
In other words, we must admit that we can’t save ourselves from the power of sin and death. Carrying out Jewish ritual washings couldn’t make anyone pure enough to enter God’s company; only being washed by the Son of God Himself could do that. That’s what Jesus meant when He said Peter could have no part with Him if he refused to allow Him to wash his feet. Humbly we must place our hope of salvation in the One who came to serve us, not to be served.
In washing Peter’s feet Jesus has shown us what He expects of us, His followers. Like Him, we must be generous-hearted humble servants of the Lord, and of each other. That’s where true greatness lies. Jesus was glorious precisely in His humble obedience to death on the cross. Loving self-giving brings out the best in us and is not degrading.
The Washing of the Feet shows us that Jesus understood His saving Passion in terms of loving, obedient service. This is sacramentally made present, celebrated, in every Mass. With Jesus calling us to be generous givers, loving servants of the Lord, and of each other, our whole attitude to life should be transformed. A simple, humble gesture of feet washing makes clear what a true follower of Jesus should be like.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. of stained glass c.1145-55 in Chartres Cathedral.