Jesus Washes his Disciples’ Feet, Duccio, Maestà, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo di Siena, Siena, Italy.
….. for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45
It was on Holy Thursday in 1974 that I experienced the washing of the feet ceremony incorporated into the Mass on that day. I was a Jesuit novice in my first year, and the Master of Novices, Fr. George Aschenbrenner performed the ritual on us all. It was extremely embarrassing, and I have never forgotten it. I can fully understand St. Peter’s agony of feeling at the Last Supper when he vehemently objected to it. It was Jesus’ way of enfleshing, as it were, his teaching in today’s gospel, that we are here to serve, not to be served. All of us. Jesus’ entire ministry demonstrates his total commitment to that teaching. He cured others, he encouraged others, he advised others, he comforted others, he forgave others, he praised others, he warned others, he was merciful to others, he listened to others, he liberated others; his life was completely dedicated to those around him. What a model for us all! And he was the Son of God! In today’s gospel his teaching was prompted by two of his disciples contemplating the glory they would have as his followers when in heaven. Presumably they were anticipating their arrival amid cheers when their time came. They declared that they were prepared to do and suffer anything for that glorious moment. Well Jesus certainly promised what seems to be suffering and even martydom (which in fact happened: James is considered to be the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred, whereas his brother John became the only one not to be martyred, but rather exiled and imprisoned for life). But as for sitting in glory amid the hosts of heaven, Jesus said that was not his to give. He might well have said that you must serve others as that is God’s will, and it should not be done with the ultimate reward in mind, merely a humble and honest prayer that we have done our best to obey God’s will. Humility was high in Jesus’ estimation. Consider the widow’s mite that Jesus said was greater than all the other huge donations into the Temple’s treasury, or the tax collector at the back of the synagogue, head bowed, humbly asking God’s forgiveness. That should be the way each of us approaches God, and at that time when God calls us from this life.
Today’s second reading puts its finger on the whole idea. Whenever we have problems which seem to be overwhelming, to whom do we go for consolation? If we know one person we can approach, but who has no experience of our tribulation, or there is another who has, which one would we approach? Surely it would be the one who has had the same experience, and can understand completely what we are going through. The reading from Hebrews contrasts the high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem whose life was light years from life as lived by the average person back then compared to that of the Lord, who lived among us, rejoiced among us, suffered among us and ultimately died for us. In Jesus, then, stands humanity in all its totality. Clearly he is the one we should run to for comfort and consolation. In addition, as all baptized people have been given the vocation to be Christ to the world (the Holy Spirit came down on us when we were anointed at baptism; “Christ” or Christos is simply the Greek word for Anointed One) then we should be open to others coming to us for support. It is thought, by the way, that if we have at least one person in our lives whom we trust (important) and with whom we share all our secrets, that will extend our life expectancy. There is at least one life insurance company that asks that exact question on its application form… So helping others without hoping for some sort of reward is very healthy!
Therefore, as Christians, we too must adopt and live by today’s great clarion call, we are here not to be served but to serve. In whatever way of life our gifts – talents – lead us, they are to be used in the service of others. So a bus driver serves passengers, a high school principal serves teachers who serve students who are learning to become true servants, a banker serves savers and investors, parents serve their children as they guide them towards a godly life, spouses serve each other, and so on. That is the way we can each be true to our Christian vocations as children of God, obedient to God’s call to each of us to be God’s true servants.
Pope Francis Washes Refugees’ Feet, Holy Thursday March 2016, Castelnuovo di Porto Refugees’ Center, Rome, Italy.