April 13, 2017
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for Holy Thursday (the Mass of the Lord’s Supper) on April 5, 2012 at then-Blessed John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the evening’s readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and John 13:1-15.
It’s astounding what Jesus did on the night before he died. St. John tells us that Jesus knows what is about to befall him. He is about to be betrayed, beaten, mocked, condemned, and crucified. And yet, on the last evening of his life, he offers a remarkable gift to his disciples and to all of us. A gift. A legacy. A command to do likewise. How astounding!
It’s not only astounding; it’s humbling. Jesus, leading the blessings at the ritual meal he is sharing with his beloved disciples, suddenly starts washing their feet. Hosts of meals would sometimes provide for their guests to have their feet washed. But either the guests washed their feet themselves, or slaves would wash their feet. Never had a host washed the feet of his guests, and never in the middle of a meal. Jesus, the son of God, bows down before his followers and washes the grime from their feet. How humbling!
It’s not only astounding and humbling; it’s also challenging. Jesus calls us to do likewise. Even though we’re very busy people, Jesus calls us to stop what we’re doing and put the needs of someone else before our own. It’s hard enough to make time to serve others. It’s even harder to humble ourselves.
What does it mean, to wash someone else’s feet? When you come right down to it, washing someone’s feet doesn’t do a whole lot for them. The second somebody gets up and walks again, their feet will become dirty. And the person doing the washing has to go through a fair amount of effort – to get a pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel, and to hold someone else’s careworn feet. But it’s the very triviality of the benefit and the amount of effort and humility required that makes it so special. It says, “I care about you. I love you. I am connected to you. We have a lasting, enduring relationship with one another.” Something so simple, and yet so profound.
Imagine what a better world it would be if Barack Obama would kneel and wash the feet of Mitt Romney, and if Mitt Romney would wash the feet of Barack Obama. Imagine if members of the Israeli Knesset washed the feet of members of the Palestinian intifada, and the members of the intifada washed the feet of the members of the Knesset. Imagine if you washed the feet of someone who really annoys you, and if they would wash yours. When you wash someone else’s feet, your relationship with that person can never be the same. You have pledged that you care about them. How challenging!
If you can’t imagine that you could wash the feet of someone who annoys you, could you at least express your care for someone you don’t know very well here in this room by washing their feet? If you’ve never participated in the Holy Thursday foot washing before, we strongly urge you to do so tonight. Here’s how it will work: you’ll come forward to one of these four chairs and sit down. Once you’re seated, take off your shoes and socks, and someone else will wash your feet. (If – and only if – it is very impracticable for you to bare your feet – such as because you’re wearing pantyhose – then please come forward and ask the person to wash your hands instead.) After they’ve dried your feet with a towel, put your shoes and socks back on and then kneel in front of the chair, so that you can wash the feet of the person who takes your place in the chair. If you have a hard time kneeling, we’ll gladly help you with the foot washing. And, in the interest of public health, we have a bottle of hand sanitizer at each station, so you can cleanse your hands afterwards. To wash someone else’s feet is challenging, but we hope that you’ll accept the challenge.
Because the act of foot washing is not only astounding, humbling, and challenging. More than all of that, it’s beautiful. If you’re uncomfortable having your feet washed by someone else, that’s normal. I think that many of us are much more willing to humble ourselves and wash someone else’s feet than to allow someone else to wash ours. It has been said that love is easier to give than to receive. But think of this: we profess that God loves each of us, just as we are. Jesus says to each of us: “I care about you. I love you. I am connected to you. We have a lasting, enduring relationship with one another.” No matter how ugly or dirty you think your feet may be, I assure you that all of us here at John XXIII think that your feet are beautiful. Please allow us to express God’s unconditional love for you. To express our communion with you.
Communion. Yes, that is what we celebrate tonight. Whenever we gather for Mass, we share one bread and one cup, just as Jesus did on the night before he died. Why do we do it? To say what we say when we wash one another’s feet: “I care about you. I love you. I am connected to you. Because we are all children of God, we have a lasting, enduring relationship with one another.” It’s astounding. It’s humbling. It’s challenging. But most of all, it’s beautiful.