You must wash each other’s feet. What I have just done was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do. John 13: 14-16
When Jesus comes to us in history, he simply restated in a more dramatic way what was true from the very beginning — that we must love God and our neighbors as ourselves. He did not just, of course, talk about it.
He lived it to the very last drop of his blood.
While we were still sinners and undeserving of being loved, he still loved us. He would not let the connection of love between God and us be severed — no matter what we do or do not do.
His life and death, which we celebrate in an intense way during Holy Week, was one great “show and tell” on how much we are loved and cared for. One of his great final “show and tells” is recorded in tonight’s gospel. Remember, the whole foot washing thing was a response to an argument among his followers over who was the greatest. After telling them, again and again, that “it cannot be that way with you,” Jesus gets down on his hands and feet and does what a slave would do — he washed their feet.
The text is clear. This dramatic gesture is only an “example.” Surely, Jesus wants more from us that a yearly ceremonial repetition of this “example.” Jesus certainly wants us to translate this “foot washing” into our own language and culture.
When I read this gospel, I do not think of a pope crawling along the floor with a gold pitcher and pressed linen towels, pouring water over the feet of aged cardinals, even though that’s beautiful in its own way.
I think of all the readers of this column who carry smelly bedpans in nursing homes. I think of husbands and wives sitting for hours in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices for their partner’s chemotherapy treatments.
I think of parents with special needs children who are virtual prisoners of their caretaking regimes. I think of those exhausted men and women who are trying to care for their elderly parents in their home.
The challenge of “foot washing” is to find our own ways to serve each other, wait on each other, notice each other’s suffering, put each other’s need first and be there for each other — for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health as our married friends put it.
In short, to be like Jesus, we need to get over our need to be loved and learn to give love — to get over our need to be getters and learn to be givers.
Again this year, the message of this gospel story is loud and clear. Our happiness lies in cooperation, not competition. The “sacred cow” of competition will not die easily. We must kill it within ourselves first, or else collectively, it will kill us all in the end.
Father J. Ronald Knott