Today is Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum, a three day feast which remembers for us the events of Christ’s Paschal mystery. Although we celebrate them over three days (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday), they make up one single feast in the life of the Church. If you want to know more about what’s going on, check out the www.BustedHalo.com video Holy Week in 2 minutes (it is embedded below), and the USCCB has answers to some questions you might have about Holy Thursday (click here).
Tonight, you’ll hear the Gospel where Jesus washes His apostles feet before celebrating the first Mass with them. Two interesting things you may not have considered before:
First, the matter of washing someone else’s feet is awkward at best – and disgusting at worst. While I had acted this out in a passion play in high school, it wasn’t until the year I attended Bible School that this really hit home for me. There was a tradition at our Bible School to spend Holy Week on retreat in St. Paul, AB, celebrating the major liturgies at the Cathedral, and hearing talks from our local Bishop. Towards the end of the week, we gathered in the assembly hall and found all the chairs set in a circle. One of the staff read from John 13, and then got down on his knees with a pitcher full of warm water, a basin, and a towel, and began washing students’ feet. A few other staff joined him at different points throughout the circle – each one picking students they had experienced conflict with throughout the year. It was a moment of humility, of contrition (the washing of another’s feet often happened while asking forgiveness for some wrong), and many tears were shed. It was a powerful evening – one of my fondest memories of the whole Bible School year. But it was a little awkward to let someone near your feet, which may have been in socks and shoes all day – and may have smelled bad or had some sock fuzz stuck between your toes. Some feet were hairy, others misshapen, but members of our staff washed each and every foot.
If you consider the state of the feet Jesus would have washed, our experience was pretty bland. The hot climate in which he lived in the Middle East combined with feet being the preferred method of transportation would have made his disciples feet filthy and potentially quite ripe. This was a task given to a lowly servant – but Jesus got down on his hands and knees and washed anyway. No one expected it, Peter was taken aback by it – and tried to stop Jesus from washing his feet – but Jesus did it anyway. Some of what we’ve seen in these first days of Pope Francis’ leadership of the Church: asking our prayers, riding back from the conclave with the cardinals, paying his own hotel bill, celebrating Mass tonight in a prison, choosing to live in community rather than in the Papal apartments… these are a small taste of what it would have been for Jesus’ apostles on this night.
There’s something more I think you should consider tonight: consider whose feet Jesus washed. If you go around the table and look at the twelve, it doesn’t seem like much. You have Judas who is about to sell Jesus out; Peter who is about to deny knowing him three times, fearing for his life; but think of the whole group. Each of these twelve men has spent the bulk of three years with and around Jesus. They’ve watched him perform miracle after miracle, heard His preaching, and most importantly, Jesus CHOSE them. As the Triduum story plays itself out, where are they? They are with Jesus at supper, follow Him to the garden and then…? On Friday, young John is the only one who makes his way to the foot of the Cross. On Sunday, it isn’t any of them who go first to pay their respects at the tomb – it’s Mary Magdalene. Jesus’ closest friends are in hiding.
In spite of this, it was each one of them whose feet he knelt down to wash – the traitor, the tax collector, the zealot (zealots were first century terrorists), those with weak faith, those with doubt, those with fear… in other words, people just like you and I. And just as He sought to draw each of them back – including Peter and Judas – I firmly believe if Judas would have accepted Christ’s mercy, he would be one of the Church’s greatest saints – He reaches out to each of us, knowing our strengths and weaknesses, our faith and our doubts, our love and our selfishness. As you celebrate each moment of the Paschal Mystery this weekend – the Lord’s Supper tonight, the Jesus’ death tomorrow, the emptiness of Saturday, and the joy of Sunday, remember who He does it for. You and I. Just as Jesus washed the feet of a group of men who would abandon Him within hours, Jesus finishes what is required of Him to restore us to the relationship we were meant to have with our Father from the beginning of time. He does it because He loves us – and as St. Augustine says, “God loves each of us as if there was only one of us.” May it be a beautiful and transforming weekend for you and for your faith.
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.