Monday, March 23, 2009

Does Washing Feet Mean Only Service?

Chapters 13-17 in the Gospel of John are perhaps my favorite back-to-back chapters of any biblical book. In case you don’t already know, these chapters describe what happened at the Last Supper and they tend to leave out what was included in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) while adding details not previously revealed by those earlier Gospels. This is because the synoptics were written between the 40s and the 60s while John’s Gospel was written in the 90s. Some may wonder why John does not give an account of the institution of the Eucharistic banquet. This, however, is because it was accounted for in the synoptics, by Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians, was being lived out in the 90s through the Sunday liturgy, and was largely discussed by John in the Book of Revelation which he wrote in the mid to late 60s.

If you read these chapters, you will notice that they are bookended with the purification of the priesthood (chapter 13) and church unity (chapter 17). Most sermons I hear regarding the washing of the Apostles’ feet by Jesus in chapter 13 describe the act merely as a call to serving others. Jesus himself said: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet” (John 13:14). But does Jesus here mean that washing each others’ feet is only a call to serving one another?

I say no.

When Jesus washed the feet, he saw the Apostles as an organic whole – as the leadership of the Church. Peter, brash as usual, protested. To him Jesus seemed to say that Peter was both clean but not all clean. At first this may sound confusing, but the following verse clarifies it: “For [Jesus] knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (John 12:11). Jesus was using the water cleansing as a means of purifying the apostolic leadership, just as baptism cleanses the soul of sin through water. In fact, this event closes with the expulsion of Judas from the group.

The thing that is so important about Holy Thursday is that Jesus gave us Himself in the Eucharist that night through the institution of the priesthood. When Jesus said “Do this in memory of me,” the Greek words connote a sacrificial, continual recapitulation of the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. What’s more, if the priests are here to confect and dispense the Eucharist, they must themselves remain pure and holy and the must hold each other accountable! We especially need this message today!

Jesus said: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). So I have to ask: does the Holy Thursday feet-washing of random church-goers really encapsulate the meaning that Jesus gave it? Do people understand this as the purification of the priests by their bishop? I think many see it in light of their own inflated self-worth (or sometimes self-worship). What happens is that many peoples’ eyes are turned inwards (on themselves) and not turned upwards (to God).

Perhaps what we need is a little more responsibility, a little more holiness, a little more purification, and a lot more liturgical common sense!

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but if Catholics really want to exemplify the message of the feet-washing in their own lives, perhaps they need to expel the impurity in their community and in their country. Here in the U.S., Catholics need stop looking to the bishops as the ones who tell them who to vote for and instead start living out their lives based on the Gospel in which they believe. Maybe it’s time for us to clean up our own house and get rid of pseudo-Catholic politicians like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Rudy Giuliani.

Only then will the purifying waters lead to the life-giving love our world really needs.

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