The meaning of foot washing

MandatumOn Holy Thursday it is tradition and part of the evening’s liturgy to celebrate the washing of feet – known as the Mandatum. The name comes from John 13:34 (Latin,Vulgate) – “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Throughout the Christian era the meaning of the foot washing has been understood as a symbol of the self-sacrificing and humble service expected of disciples. But if one attends to the text, there are two verses that should give one pause. In v.8 Jesus clearly tells Peter “Unless I wash [nipsēs] you, you will have no inheritance with me.” In addition, there is v.10: “Whoever has bathed [leloumenos] has no need except to have his feet washed [nipsasthai], for he is clean all over…”

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What is ours to do

tn_2013 Holy Thursday foot washingThe days of Holy Week, Triduum, and Easter are very special, but these days just past seemed especially so. With the help of many people, we were able to do two new things this year: (a) use San Damiano as our place of Eucharistic Reserve following the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and (b) process through the streets of downtown Tampa as part of the celebration. Many, many people have called, emailed, or made a point to mention to me how special Holy Thursday was for them.  One email commented that in almost 70 years of Holy Thursdays, none had moved her spiritually as did that evening.

And Holy Thursday was just the start. The celebrations of Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday were just as moving and Spirit-filled. All of the Easter Sunday services were standing-room only with three of the morning masses having people extending out the front door onto the steps.  We friars were wondering if we should add more Masses on Easter Sunday – but the questions of when and where left us scratching our heads.

There just seemed to be a wonderful spirit about these celebrations. I wonder if the Holy Spirit has ushered in a new sense of Hope along with the election of Pope Francis.  Our Holy Father continues to demonstrate what is ours to do by simple acts of humility and direct words about how the love of Christ is to form us and our actions in the world.

At the Chrism Mass, the pope spoke directly to priests about their ministry – but they are words that should speak to each one of us who would carry the name “Christian:”

A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction,” they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens, and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem,” “Bless me,” “Pray for me,” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into prayer. The prayers of the people of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests…. (Pope Francis, Chrism Mass homily 2013)

Then at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday – celebrated in a youth detention facility – he washed and anointed the feet of young men and women, Catholic and not.  Words and action – simple yet speaking volumes.

But not all are so enamored with Pope Francis.  One group has called for Pope Emeritus Benedict to come out of retirement, take up again the Petrine Ministry and declare Francis an “anti-pope” before he destroys the Church. They hear the words of the Gospel, and their witness of Pope Francis washing the feet of the imprisoned is quite different from mine. Here is one view:

“I am a young, recently ordained priest. Tonight, I planned on preaching about the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. How can I speak about such things – the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti – when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different? I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, “I don’t have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don’t we just all do what we want.”

Hmmm? When I look back on my life as a leader in the Navy and business, I wish I had “washed a few more feet.”  Perhaps not a literally as Jesus, but in a way that served others consistent with the mission, vision, and values of the company.

Christian ministry is about vision (the Kingdom of God), mission (go to the ends of the earth), and values (salvific service). It is not about doing what one wants. If one is a pastor, the people will do what you do. So? We should be asking if what we do is true, necessary, and helpful in the light of the Kingdom of God and salvation?  And do you let others know why you do what you do? In that moment our values are writ large; our struggles for holiness and a virtuous life are on display.

St. Bonaventure once wrote that humility is the guardian and gateway to all the other virtues. It seems to me that Jesus washing feet and the pope washing feet portrays the core value of what it means to serve as priest. Humility – while you are reviewing the parish finances, meeting with the bake sale people, after having heard hours of Holy Week confessions and you thought you might actually get lunch today, another person says, “Hey Father, can you hear one more confession?” – or one of a hundred other tasks that seminary never mentioned.  In that moment your sense of vision, mission, and action as priest will speak volumes about the model of priest one enacts.  The question is will it model Jesus? Will people see Jesus in our priestly ministry?  Will it encourage them to follow Christ? That is why we are ordained.

While I thought of all this in the light of the young, newly-ordained priest who is not enamored with Pope Francis, in truth, all the above is larger than ordination. This is why we are baptized. It is what is ours to do.

May God in his mercy, grace us to do what is ours.