By Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
We have all seen the Holy Thursday scene so many times: a few embarrassed-looking parishioners in front of the congregation with their shoes off and an alb-clad priest trying to wash their feet without stumbling or falling. Everyone seems relieved when it is over.
But the footwashing that Jesus performed in chapter 13 of John was not intended to give us another liturgical ritual. It was supposed to be a paradigm for authentic Christian life.
Washing the feet of the guests was considered the lowest task in a household and no Jewish slave would ever be asked to do it. So when Jesus puts a towel around himself and begins to wash their feet we can imagine their shocked and stunned silence. There are echoes of Philippians 2:1-11 –- assuming the condition of a slave –- as Jesus begins his task.
The synoptic Gospels portray the disciples squabbling among themselves at the Last Supper about who is the greatest. John considers this question so important that he is willing to omit the institution of the Eucharist in order to relate this scene. But the footwashing will illustrate love to the limit and can be seen as an interpretation of the meaning of Eucharist rather than a replacement.
Peter’s objections are often thought to reflect humility or feelings of unworthiness. That may be the case but there is another possibility. Peter might have seen all too clearly what Jesus was doing and was struggling to come to terms with it. The paradigm that Jesus mimes for them is one of renunciation of status, honor, and ego and runs counter to human values and human societies. This was an essential element of spirituality in the early Christian communities. No wonder Peter was squirming. But Jesus was adamant and uncompromising: unless I wash your feet you can have no share with me!
As Jesus dons his robe again, he recognizes that only later will they understand what he has just done. He is teacher and lord, and if he is willing to serve others in what is considered the lowliest way without feeling slighted or diminished then how much more should his disciples?
Humility has a bad reputation — understandably so — because of how it is often invoked to oppress and control others. The humility that Jesus models is not one of subordination or domination. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders describes this as a “radical new order of human relationships” between equals. Disciples are invited to draw their sense of worth and honor from their relationship with Jesus Christ and the love which they share with one another.
At the conclusion of the supper he gives them a “new” commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Chapter 15 will clarify the manner of this love: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love alone is to be the identifying sign of the Christian disciple, not what one eats, drinks, or wears, nor the manner of ritual and prayer.
In what sense is this commandment new? Christianity did not invent love. When Jesus refers to love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment in the other three Gospels he quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. But it is new in the sense that it is the first and essential commandment given by Jesus in the new age that he has inaugurated by his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection.
The spirituality that Jesus invites us to follow in every aspect of our lives is a continual letting go of pride, fear, and desire for honor, power, and recognition. In its place we should be eager to lay down our “life” (ego, selfishness, and personal advantage) for the sake of others.