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. And yet St. John’s Gospel is the only one to record it.
The setting was of vital importance –a meal anticipating the celebration of the Passover, and resonant with its meaning. This, the greatest of Jewish festivals, celebrating 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 rescuing His People from further oppression; 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 would He defeat the power of evil, which entrapped us? How would He set us free? 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,’ (Philip. 2.8).
That’s what Jesus wanted Peter, and us, to understand when He insisted on performing the menial task of washing His disciples’ dirty travel-worn feet. The creator of heaven and earth performed a service, which was considered too degrading for a self-respecting Jew!
As Jesus washed His disciples’ feet He showed that to become a liberator He must Himself become enslaved.
Jesus was to be the Second Moses, a slave himself, leading God’s People out of bondage; He was to 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. His loving obedience to His Father’s will would reverse the rebellion of sin, and would repair the damage that caused.
By washing Peter’s feet Jesus showed that He had come to serve. Not to be served. Obedient, loving service –that was how Jesus wanted us to understand His Passion. Through obedient death on the cross He would save the world. Through His Agony in the Garden, through His suffering on the cross He would learn the cost of loving obedience to His Father’s will. That is 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 this treachery -the most radical of all acts of disobedience against God -the crucified Christ would be triumphant in His obedience. What a contrast between Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s total commitment to His Father’s will!
That should helps us to understand why Jesus insisted on washing Peter’s feet -why He made it a necessary condition for true discipleship. Quite simply, Peter, and the rest of us, must accept Jesus on His own terms. That means we must welcome Him as the Servant-Saviour, if we are to enjoy the salvation He has won for us. Like someone who is sick we must allow 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. Humbly we must place our hope of salvation in the One who came to serve us, not to be served. He is our only hope of salvation!
In washing Peter’s feet Jesus has shown us what He expects of us, His followers. Like Him, we must be servants of the Lord, and of each other. We must show Christ’s total commitment, not the treachery of Judas. Far from this being demeaning, such service shows the depth of Christ’s loving obedience to His heavenly Father, His love for each one of us. Jesus has shown us that true greatness lies in serving, not being served.
Like Jesus, we will find true greatness in our being generous-hearted servants of the Lord. But first we must accept our total dependence on the Lord, before we can be of any help to anyone else. We must learn to receive, before we can give; to serve, to obey, to follow, before we can presume to lead.
The Washing of the Feet shows us that Jesus understood His saving Passion in terms of loving, obedient service. His obedient sacrifice on the cross is made present in every Mass. With Jesus we are called to be generous givers, loving servants of the Lord, and of each other. That should express our whole attitude to life. And that simple, humble gesture of feet washing tells us what a true follower of Christ should be like.