Arts and Culture

Foot Washing Sums Up Jesus’ Entire Ministry

by Father Robert Lauder

Sixth in a series

Reading about the scene in John’s Gospel depicting Jesus washing the feet of the apostles has brought back a powerful memory. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to The Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011, pp. 384) Pope Benedict offers some interesting insights on this as well as other moments in Jesus’ life throughout his book.

The incident that my memory has brought back took place at a clergy study day. I was a young priest and recall finding the main speaker quite inspiring. The main speaker was Father Charles Curran, not the famous moral theologian but the priest-psychologist.

In his presentation, Father Curran stressed that a priest should be available to his people, ready to serve and help whenever they need him. This was the main emphasis in his talk, and he probably was suggesting that a priest will find fulfillment in serving others. I suspect that in preparing his talk, Father Curran relied on some of the personalist philosophers, such as Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel. The French word didponibilite is used by Marcel to describe the best way that a person should be present to others. The word may be untranslatable, but I think a close English word would be “available.” When you care about someone, you make yourself available to that person. This was what Father Curran stressed, and it made a great deal of sense to me because my limited experience suggested to me that the happiest priests I knew were also the most zealous.

After his presentation, a group of priests were asking Father Curran questions and commenting on his talk. One priest said, “If we did what you are suggesting we should do, be available to people, then people would walk all over us.”

Father Curran responded, “Let’s take that image you are offering. You are on the ground and people are walking on you. If we change the image slightly and picture you kneeling at their feet and washing their feet, then we have the image that at the Last Supper Jesus offered for priests.”

What Father Curran suggested, Pope Benedict presents from a theological perspective. He writes the following about the washing of the feet:

“Looking back over the whole chapter on the washing of the feet, we may say that in this humble gesture, expressing the entire ministry of Jesus’ life and death, the Lord stands before us as the servant of God – He who for our sake became one who serves, who carries our burden and so grants us true purity, the capacity to draw close to God. In the second Suffering Servant Song from Isaiah, there is a phrase that in some sense anticipates the essence of John’s theology of the Passion: The Lord ‘said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ (49:3; …)

“Indeed, Saint John’s whole Passion narrative is built on this connection between humble service and glory (doxa): it is in Jesus’ downward path, in his abasement even to the Cross, that God’s glory is seen, that the Father and, in him, Jesus are glorified.” (pp. 74-75)

The humble gesture of washing His disciples’ feet sums up the entire mission and ministry of Jesus. Of course as St. Paul preached, that the Son of God became one of us was an almost incredibly humble gesture, and then Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection were an illustration and a fulfillment of the deepest meaning of the Incarnation.

I suppose that it takes most of us a lifetime to understand with any depth Jesus’ lesson that if you wish to be first, you must serve others. This is not only the way we will attain human happiness but is also the way to reach personal fulfillment. Power, fame, riches and possessions will never fulfill us. If we center our lives on any of these, we are doomed to disappointment. Being loved and loving is the only road to human fulfillment. The Holy Father insists that the entire Passion narrative is built on the connection between humble service and glory. I think we can say that Jesus’ entire life is based upon that connection. It may take many of us a lifetime to learn the profound truth that Jesus teaches by washing the feet of His disciples. I wonder if there is any truth more important to learn.