Every year, we keep the beautiful tradition of re-enacting the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday.
Most people, when they are invited to take part in this ceremony by having their feet washed, feel honored. However, there can also be a feeling of embarrassment for some people. First of all, most people feel nervous getting up in front of a crowd even if they will not be saying or doing anything. Secondly, it can be awkward to take our shoe off and expose our foot. For many of us, our feet are not our most attractive feature. That’s why we cover them up with stockings and shoes. Many people also feel vulnerable when their shoes are off. What if there’s a fire or other emergency and I have to run out of church with only one shoe on? Finally, as if showing our foot was not embarrassing enough, the priest is going to take it in his hand, pour water over it and dry it off with a towel.
So while it is natural to feel honored when invited to take part in the foot washing ceremony, it is also natural to feel nervous and uncomfortable about it.
Now, let’s imagine how uncomfortable it must have felt for the apostles when Jesus stooped down to wash their feet. They did not come from wealthy backgrounds. They would not have been used to going to lavish dinners at rich people’s homes. So it is very likely that, although it was a custom of the day, they would not have been used to having their feet washed. Also, since foot washing was done only by servants, it would have been a shock for them to see Jesus doing it. In fact, we know it was uncomfortable for them because Peter jumps up and, at first, refuses to have Jesus do it for him.
Jesus did not wash the apostles’ feet because He couldn’t stand the smell anymore or because He didn’t want them to track dirt into the dining room. Rather, He did it to give them - and us - an example. If Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the World, was humble enough to wash the feet of His followers, we should do the same for one another. Jesus came to earth to serve and not to be served. As His followers, we must do the same.
Foot washing is an apt symbol because keeping Jesus’ commandment to love one another can get us into some awkward and tense situations. We might have to serve people who smell bad or are obnoxious. We might have to deal with people who don’t speak our language or whose culture is foreign to us. We may have to go to places we are not familiar with or be put in situations in which we do not feel comfortable. Often, we can be left feeling awkward, nervous or out of place. Nonetheless, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, we have to tolerate and even embrace that discomfort with patience, understanding and love toward those whom God places in our lives.
As if washing the disciples’ feet was not humiliating enough, Jesus goes a step further. After cleansing them, He feeds them His own Body and Blood. He empties Himself, holding nothing back, to unite Himself to the them - and to us - in the most intimate way possible.
Just as with the foot washing, Jesus gives Himself to us in the Eucharist not only to nourish us but to give us an example. We must empty ourselves - giving until it hurts - to bring Jesus to others. Just as He gives Himself to us though it cost Him His life, we must give ourselves to others.
Every condemned person gets a last meal. When He was facing an unjust and torturous death, Jesus chose to spend His last meal not indulging Himself but indulging those He loved by washing their feet and nourishing them with His own Body and Blood. In the same way, Jesus calls us not to spend our lives indulging ourselves but caring for the needs of others. But first we must allow Him to wash us and feed us. Then we will have strength to bear the embarrassment, vulnerability and outright fear that comes with going out to the fringes of society.
Jesus has done it all for us. Now we must go and do the same for one another.