Thursday, April 5, 2012
Washing Feet: Not Merely “Servant Leadership”
From a wonderful article in the National Catholic Register, Tim Drake writes that we tend to understand, “the foot-washing passage [of Jesus and the Apostles] as if through a pair of glasses with one lens missing. The modern interpretation views the event only as an act of service… It is certainly this, but oh, so much more.”
If the foot-washing is not just about service to others, what exactly is it also about? Well let’s take a look at how John opens his passage on the washing of the feet: “The devil had already induced Judas… to hand [Jesus] over. So… [Jesus] rose from supper and… he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:1-2,4-5). Notice the word “so” in the passage. John is leading us to connect the Devil and Judas to the act of foot-washing. Because the Devil has induced Judas to betray Jesus, Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles. But does Jesus’ action make sense? What connection could there possibly be between water and evil?
It makes perfect sense.
Just recall what water does in the Bible. It’s the floodwaters in Noah’s day that purifies the world of sin. The waters of the Red Sea drowned Pharaoh’s army and set the Israelites free to worship as God has instructed them. For us it is water in baptism that frees us from Original Sin and enables us to worship as the sons of God. And don’t forget that there is always a minor exorcism with every baptism. Jesus, before instituting Holy Orders and the Eucharist first performs a kind of communal baptism and exorcism of the Apostles. He exorcises Judas from among the Apostolic ranks and he washes their feet, preparing them for their mission: to carry by foot the proclamation of the Gospel and the spread of Christ’s Kingdom, drawing all men to Him through them (see John 17).
When Peter resists the foot-washing, Jesus says to him: “…you are clean, but not all.” (John 13:10, 11). Just as the Israelites fought as one man, the unity of the Apostles must be retained. They, too, shall fight as one man in a battle against Satan. Jesus knew there would be future Judas’ among his men – and he established this foot-washing example among them in order that they should be vigilant among themselves, casting out evil from their ranks so that the mission is not jeopardized and the bride of Christ is protected. Jesus says, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). For centuries the bishops followed this model by washing the feet of their priests at the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday.
As another landmark clerical sex-abuse trial begins in Philadelphia, is it at all surprising that these cases have arisen since we reduced the foot-washing to merely a nice act of “servant leadership” in our parishes? Does it really surprise us that monsters have profaned the Sacrament of Holy Orders since we stopped being vigilant? Is it not time to renew the bishop’s washing of his priest’s feet?
Perhaps our bishops should heed two other words from Christ on Holy Thursday: “…keep watch” (Matthew 26:40).