“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.” – John 13:12-16
You know what I love about the Holy Thursday mass readings? This is the only time that all three readings describe three unique events that are central to our Catholic faith.
In the first reading, we read about the institution of the feast of פֶּסַח (Pesach), or Passover. Looking past the uncomfortable idea that God killed every firstborn of Egypt (which I don’t believe really took place), I am reminded that Passover was the backdrop of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Last Supper was a Passover meal shared by observant Jews.
The English language does not help us. Whichever pagan goddess is the source, Ishtar or Eostre, the name “Easter” makes it easy to forget that Holy Week is essentially how Christians observe Passover. Spanish-speakers don’t have this problem: they refer to Resurrection Sunday as Pascua, which is derived from Pascha, the Latin word for Passover.
It is very important to remember that Judaism is the direct ancestor of our Christian faith. I wonder if the history of antisemitism might have turned out differently if Christianity had followed that path.
The second reading provides us with the earliest known account of our new Passover meal: the Eucharist. Before the Gospels were written, Paul shared the Last Supper story with the church in Corinth. It is the template for the consecration.
As a lector, I have the privilege of reading this tonight. This is probably the most humbling reading for me, because I have the chance to proclaim what is prayed at every mass during its most sacred moment. The Eucharist is one of the primary reasons why I’ve remained Catholic through so many trials, a testimony that I have a chance to provide from the lectern.
But it’s in the Gospel account of Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples that I see the key to how I am supposed to behave as a Christian. It is also the hardest of the readings to wrap my head around.
Without the benefit of living in Middle Eastern culture (where feet are seen as filthy and profane), washing somebody’s feet does not seem like such a big deal. Priests and bishops have been doing it on Holy Thursday for centuries. I, for one, have washed my kids’ feet many times.
But can I really wash people’s feet? In other words, can I really be a servant, which is what Jesus was really telling us to do? I won’t lie: that does not come easy for me. I have two obstacles to this: a fear of being used and a revulsion to doing things for people that I feel they can easily do themselves.
In washing the disciples’ feet, I sense that Jesus was doing more than making a show. Jesus, God incarnate, was being a servant. In spite of the barriers to my claiming a status as a servant of God’s people, I need to keep asking Jesus to teach me how to wash people’s feet.