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There's More Beauty in the Footwashing Passage on Holy Thursday

John Kelleher

The gospel of John widely uses the literary device of the "double meaning"; for instance, the 'living water' in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42).

And yet, according to some, all literary and theological subtlety in this most literarily and theologically subtle gospel vanishes at the very point of one of the gospel's most solemn moments, the washing of the feet in the context of the Last Supper. Then and only then, it's all and only about a mere footwashing, and all and only about one single level of 'service' and 'humiliation' that Jesus demonstrates to His Apostles.

But there is far more beauty and meaning in Jesus's washing of the feet of the Twelve. To find it, we must briefly set a different course, in which we not only further unpack the Scriptures here and elsewhere, but also step back from our too-narrow present focus.

To begin our step back to a more complete perspective, we note that Father Jerry Pokorsky remarks:

If the washing of feet were only symbolic of charity and service, why did Jesus not wash the feet of the sick, or the hungry, or the lepers, or His friends in the house of Lazarus, or at the feeding of the five thousand? The Lord might have have found other occasions to give a lesson in charity and service in the presence of all His disciples, both men and women. But He did not.

Christ chose an occasion which was not open to all His followers, but only to those twelve men He had chosen and called as Apostles. We must conclude, then, that the ritual is intimately connected to the priesthood and the institution of the Eucharist. Its symbolism cannot be reduced to a general theme of service to the whole Church.

Rev. Msgr. Anthony A. La Femina points out that:

In His preface to the Last Supper in the fourth Gospel, John very carefully stated that the final work of Jesus during His "hour" could only be accomplished by His death upon the cross.

And yet:

Then, upon His completion of the Footwashing, Jesus makes the most astounding declaration: "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him". (Jn 13:31) ... This can only lead to the conclusion that in John 13:31, the fourth Gospel is teaching about the presence of Jesus' saving death at the Last Supper before it took place on Calvary. [emphasis in the original]

Relevant paragraphs of Paschalis Sollemnitatis follow:

45. Careful attention should be given to the mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ's command of brotherly love; the homily should explain these points.

51. The washing of the feet of chosen men [viri selecti] which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came "not to be served, but to serve." [58] This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

We will see momentarily that "the service and charity of Christ" is expressed by Our Lord not only in a humble human service, but also by means of the very institution of the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood that Paschalis Sollemnitatis says are also "the mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass."

Now, further consider the washing of the feet at Holy Thursday. Washing feet has a specific, actual, literal purpose. That purpose is not 'service', but to make the feet clean.

Moreover, the feet are cleansed, not for cleanliness's sake alone, but for a particular purpose: to more worthily enter a special place, for instance, a home. Thus, both the theme of 'entering' a new place, and that this place is more worthy, are deeply associated with footwashing.

This would not be some precious, recondite meaning available only to scholars in that day. That footwashing is deeply associated with more worthily entering a special place would have been obvious to those who lived within this social milieu. You were entering a more worthy place, you washed your feet before entering; simple as that. You didn't have to be taught that explicitly; you didn't need a lecture on the 'deeper meaning' of footwashing to know this in your bones; it was just obvious.

Ex 30:19-21 directs priests to wash their (hands and) feet. The priest is forbidden in an unclean condition to approach God, lest he die.

And 'service' does not explain why Our Lord tells St. Peter "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." (Jn 13:8) Yes, given the gospel's predilection for multiple meanings, baptism could also be meant here. But please note that Jesus, tonight, must specifically wash His Apostles' feet -- and that Jesus tells Peter that no other washing is necessary; that the Apostles are already otherwise clean, "though not all" (referring to Judas). How curious that despite this, some still say that this foot washing has no other meaning. Yet in fact, in another common literary device that the gospel employs, Peter's misunderstanding of the washing only serves to emphasize the theological point: washing the feet, specifically, is part of what enables the 'inheritance' of tonight.

However, Jesus preparing His Apostles to act in His person, as priest, does explain that statement. He means to prepare them to enter a special place. His 'inheritance' in this case is His High Priesthood, which He means His Apostles to have a share in.

Which of course fits perfectly in the context of the Last Supper and Calvary - cleansing the feet of His Apostles so that they may act in the very person of Christ and offer the One Sacrifice, which He Himself is instituting that very night.

Moreover, only Jesus could have cleansed the feet of the Apostles and made them capable of approaching this supernatural altar. No one else -- no mere man, ever -- could have washed the Apostles' feet and achieved the cleansing that is necessary. This cleansing belongs solely to God alone.

Thus, Jesus's washing of the Apostles' feet, which is a preparation to enter a more worthy place, is not simply 'service' as a humiliation in the human sense. It is also 'service' in the sense of the divine condescension, a mark of the overwhelming graciousness of God, without which we could have no priests and no Eucharist.

Thus, the meaning of the passage has to do with Jesus's cleansing of the Apostles' feet to enable mere human males (viri) to approach the altar of the One Sacrifice - the 'inheritance' of which St. Peter now has a share.

The literal purpose of washing any feet is to cleanse the feet. 'Service' does not explain why the service Jesus performed was that act, the washing of the feet. Footwashing in that day was deeply associated with entering a special place. The Apostles were entering a special place for the Last Supper. And washing the feet specifically, not 'service', is part of what causes the inheritance. This 'inheritance' is completely enfolded within Calvary and the institution of the Eucharist; viz., it is a share in the High Priesthood of the Christ.

Hence, the first ordination happened in stages enfolded within Calvary and the Resurrection. The foot-washing enables the Apostles, mere human males, to approach the altar of the One Sacrifice. Then they are given the command and vocation to offer the One Sacrifice at that altar. But the actual ability to act as High Priest at that supernatural altar is given only after the Resurrection, when the Risen Lord breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. (Jn 20:22).

Thus also, that viri (males) alone are to be selected for the rite is an essential aspect of the rite -- unless one wishes the rite to obfuscate the fact that ordination in the Catholic church is reserved solely to viri. Then -- but only then -- the mandate of the rite for viri is 'optional', or 'regrettable', or 'ignorable'.

Moreover, as Msgr. Anthony La Femina notices, Jesus's ritual preparation of His Apostles for ordination and His call to them to offer the One Sacrifice 'in memory of Me', all occur within the One Sacrifice itself -- the Event of the Last Supper and Calvary.

Also, an echo to Jn 12:3 may be in point: [the sister of Martha] "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus...." Several commentators see Mary's anointing of Jesus's feet as a kind of pre-preparation for His burial.

Which is to say, with these echoes and references in mind, we can readily reflect on the idea that a Catholic priest is not just baptized into His death, as are all the baptized; he is also ordained into His death.

A Catholic priest who preaches the merely partial truth of human 'service' as the entire meaning of the footwashing at Holy Thursday, perforce trivializes the profound sacrifice of his own life in and for his Catholic priesthood, and that of all his brother priests.

It is a solemn thing to approach the supernatural altar of the One Sacrifice. You would die, unless Christ Himself, in an awesome divine condescension, prepares you, a mere human male, to act in His Person.

"Do you understand what I have done for you?" (Jn 13:12) Yes, but there is always more to understand. The Suffering Servant stoops down and touches and cleanses the feet, not of just anyone, but the feet of the Twelve. And we must remember that He does this not only as Suffering Servant, but also still as Teacher, and even more, in this moment, as High Priest and Lord. His divine condescension, without which there could be no priests and no Eucharist, is an inextricable part of His service in this act.

At ordination, a worthy man, though merely human, is dignified and enfolded forever within the mission of that Suffering Servant, who remains also Teacher and High Priest and Risen Lord. The priest must do "as I have done;" but within the totality of what He does. The priest must suffer, and serve; but he must also teach, and by divine condescension, he also now shares in the very Priesthood of the Christ. The service Our Lord gave His disciples by washing their feet makes them ready to enter a more worthy place, prepares them to approach the Holy Altar and to offer the One Sacrifice in His very Person.

The humility of His human service in this act is indeed part of the Mystery, but equally part of that Mystery is a gift of profound grace, a divine condescension. In that act, He stoops and touches the feet of His Apostles in all ways.

The answer to why Our Lord gave this particular example of service within the one Event of Calvary and the Last Supper thus rather depends on how deeply we understand the service that a Catholic priest's very life is enfolded within.

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