Biblical and Pastoral Reflection on Feet Washing on Holy Thursday
By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
English language attaché, Holy See Press Office
Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion. Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ own ministry took place during meals at table.
Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes. It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us John’s account of the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.
As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins — with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: “As I have done for you, so you must also do.” The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is the evangelist John’s way of saying to Christ’s followers throughout the ages: “You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord’s body and blood. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.
Three years ago on Holy Thursday evening, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 young people at a Roman Juvenile Detention Center, including young women, and two Muslims. That Pope Francis washed the feet of young men and women in a detention centre in Rome on his first Holy Thursday, and has continued that gesture over the past Holy Thursdays in a centre for the elderly and infirm and then a maximum security facility in Rome, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy that have been the hallmarks of the Bishop of Rome since his election in March 2013. Just as Jesus gave an example to his disciples in the humble gesture of foot washing, so too the Vicar of Christ offers us an example that we might learn from it and imitate this gesture.
Pope Francis’ simple gesture of washing the feet speaks for itself. He has taught the world profound messages over the past three years of his Petrine ministry to the world. He has brought many to Jesus Christ through the simplicity of his messages and gestures. He shows us how to put the Eucharist into practice in our daily lives.