Gospel Story for Holy Thursday
Jesus Washes the Disciples Feet (John 13: 1-17)
“’For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13: 15)
Our Lenten journey now takes us to the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. On the eve of his passion and death, Jesus profoundly redefined the Passover ritual – making the Lord’s Supper the central focus of the new covenant.
The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – focus on how Jesus uses the Passover meal as the basis for instituting the Holy Eucharist. Those Gospels emphasize the way Jesus identifies the bread and wine of this sacred meal with the outpouring of his body and blood to establish the new covenant. Their accounts stress Jesus’ eternal gift of his presence in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
By contrast, the Gospel of John’s description of the Passover meal never mentions Jesus instituting the Eucharist. While the Gospel clearly emphasizes Jesus as the Bread of Life (See, for example, Chapter 6.), the central focus of the Passover meal is an entirely different ritual: the washing of the feet. By the time John’s Gospel was written, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper was already well established in the Christian community. John’s Gospel uses the washing of the feet to capture the true meaning of the Eucharist. It calls the disciples to the humble task of pouring out their lives in loving service of one another – powerfully symbolized by Jesus’ gesture of washing the feet of the disciples.
Serving others with humility is not easy. In consulting with schools of nursing, I learned that some nursing students have a very difficult time with the humbling aspects of the role. Nurses and other caregivers have to deal with the personal and often messy aspects of caring for patients. There’s little prestige or glamour in dealing with bed pans and body fluids. Some students pass this litmus test of humble service, and others don’t. These students are a reflection of all of us. When it comes to girding ourselves with a towel and washing the feet of others, some of us humble ourselves and others don’t.
In 2016, Pope Frances took the washing of the feet to an even deeper level. He visited a center for asylum seekers outside of Rome to wash the feet of migrants of all faiths from around the world. As the Washington Post reported, “They came from Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Pakistan. They were Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and Coptic Christians. One by one, Pope Francis knelt down before these migrants on Holy Thursday and washed their feet.” His remarkable gesture of humble service is a challenge to conscience.
As Jesus washes the feet of each disciple, Peter provides an object lesson for all of us.
“Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (John 13: 8-9)
There is a way in which Peter gets it right. He recognizes that Jesus has humbled himself by taking on the role of a servant, and he objects vehemently. But, there is a way in which he totally misses the point. Jesus makes it clear to Peter than he needs to submit to being washed. Fully sharing in our relationship with Jesus not only includes humbling ourselves to serve others, it also includes allowing others to serve us.
My Mother lived most of her adult life as a competent, independent and proud woman. Now that she’s in her 90s, she requires the help of assisted living – including help bathing. Like Peter, she finds it difficult to submit to being washed. One day when she was scheduled for her shower, she decided to shower before the caregivers arrived. She planned to tell the caregivers that she had already bathed when they arrived. Unfortunately, she lost her balance in the shower and the fall left her with a fractured pelvis and a broken arm.
The late CBS newsman Mike Wallace said it well: “Aging is not for wimps.” As we lose our strength and capacity, we are humbled by our need to accept the help of others.
All of us are like Peter – sometimes getting it right and other times missing the point. To help us, John’s Gospel doesn’t just describe Jesus’ outpouring of himself in humble service. It also includes his explanation of the meaning of this gesture to make sure we don’t miss the point: “’I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13: 15)
As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we do so with profound gratitude for the gift of the Eucharist – Christ’s enduring gift of his presence within and among us. We are also called to wash the feet of others – friend and enemy alike – and to let them wash us.
Questions to Ponder
- As you consider the examples of Jesus and Pope Francis, what experiences in your own life come to mind?
- Who are you being called to serve with the kind of humility symbolized by the washing of the feet?
- In what ways do you need to submit to being washed – humbling yourself to let others serve you?
Invitation to Prayer
Jesus, I am in awe of the outpouring of your love in the Eucharist and grateful for your example of washing the disciples’ feet. Thank you!
When I try to follow your example, my pride and fear get in the way. Help me learn to empty myself of power and privilege so that am I free to serve others – particularly those I find most difficult to serve.
You know how much I like the power and control of serving and the ways I resist emptying myself to let others serve me. Help me learn to embrace my humanness and acknowledge my need so that I may receive the gift and blessing of others who are willing to serve me.