God Himself Washes Our Feet

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1b).

You are probably reading this article some time in the Easter season, but I was drawn this month to linger on the beautiful mystery of Holy Thursday and the Lord’s actions that day.

The days of the Triduum pass by so fast—Thursday! Friday! Saturday!—and each day calls us to focus on a completely different aspect of Christ’s Passion. So it doesn’t hurt to revisit them once the light of the Resurrection has dawned and all of us are bathed in its light.

So, Holy Thursday: The Eucharist, the priesthood, the new commandment to love as Christ loved. All wrapped up together as we sit at the Last Supper with the apostles, like them a bit dumbfounded in our weak faith, and watch him do what he does, say what he says.

Bread and wine and words that wind together and form a tapestry of grace and truth that becomes the very fabric of our lives, the very life of our soul—his life given to be our life, available to us on every altar, lived by us (or it should be) in every beat of our hearts.

The Gospel chosen for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, though, is neither the words of institution of the Eucharist, nor is it the New Commandment from John 13:34.

No, it is the washing of the feet (John 13: 1-15), Jesus kneeling down like a slave before each of his apostles, taking their feet—their dusty, smelly feet—in his hands and washing them with tender gentle love.

It is easy to pass over the words, this is my body, this is my blood, without taking them in too deeply. We hear them so often—every day if you are a daily communicant, every week at least.

We believe them, but maybe don’t hear them quite as we should. And it is too easy to hear this new commandment of love and sentimentalize or trivialize it. The word “love” is such a debased currency in our days.

It is harder to do this with the washing of the feet. So concrete! So (literally) earthy! So distasteful to us. Feet can smell bad, and they certainly are not the most attractive part of the human body. And so intimate—so very, very intimate an act of service.

So the Lord does this, to set us an example, as he says. And the Church holds out for us this example, and not just every Holy Thursday.

This is what the Eucharist and all the other sacraments are—the total love of Christ coming to us in the most intimate way, touching us in every dimension of our being, Christ before us like a slave, serving us in whatever way we need to be served.

And this is the as I have loved you of the New Commandment. This is how Christ loves us—total gift, total presence, total service, total humility. He made himself a slave for us (cf. Phil 2: 7). We are to be slaves of one another, not out of compulsion or violence or a degradation of our humanity, but out of love.

As Catherine Doherty liked to say, “Love does such things.” It’s so hard for us to contemplate this matter—that God loves us that much, that is. There is a stubborn resisting spirit in us that finds it most difficult to take this in.

God washing my feet. God forgiving my sins. God touching those parts in me that disgust even me, those aspects of my person that even I can barely stand to look at or admit, and certainly take great pains to hide from everyone else.

God kneels (yes, kneels) before me and says, If you do not let me wash you, you can have no share in me (v. 8).

While there are many reasons (most of them painful) why we find this hard to believe, hard to take in, of course part of it is that genuinely accepting this depth of love and totality of gift commits us to live and love likewise. And that is hard for us, hard and very scary.

He loved them to the end. Not only to the end of his life on earth, but to the very end of love itself. Christ’s love, which has no measure except the measure of God which is infinity, extends to the most distant horizon of what love is, what love could possibly be.

And here we are, his little disciples, scared, unsure, barely believing some days, yet called to take tentative steps of love and service, at least starting to love as he loved, and maybe even doing a little more than just start (those who reach that point, we call “saints”).

Well, it all comes down to the feet that are immediately before us. What small act of service, what little act of love, are you and I being asked to do … right now? And … now? And (five minutes later) … now?

He doesn’t ask us, right now, to die for another person. He might very well, and probably does, ask us to suffer for them or on account of them. At least a bit.

A lifetime of such “and nows?”, that is, a lifetime spent asking ourselves what small act of love are we being asked to do at the moment, adds up. Over time, years or decades maybe. Or maybe it all happens in one brilliant flashing forth of love and gift, that we come to resemble the One who loves us like that, all the time.

And this is Easter in us. Christ loved to the end, and this end lodges in your heart and mine, so that we may love at all. And in that, his love resurrects in us and we become indeed the Easter Proclamation we were made to be from the beginning.

Holy Thursday and Good Friday blend together and are taken up into the triumphal song of Easter Sunday, and the Love revealed in the first two days of the Triduum bursts forth into the Life revealed on the third day. May we live that day always, as we love that way always. Alleluia.