By Michelle Francl-Donnay
He got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing. – Jn. 13:4-5
A few years ago I came home to find an 8-year-old Chris sitting on a chair in the middle of the living room watching television, his feet soaking in my biggest soup pot. Puzzled, I asked, “Are you all right?”
“I just had a stressful day, and I need to relax,” he told me. Ah. “Do you want to tell me about it?” I asked.
I listened to what was troubling him, retrieved the pot to use for dinner and dried his feet – still small enough then to enfold in my hands – with a towel. Now when I hear this Gospel passage proclaimed, I remember kneeling at my son’s feet, tenderly wiping off the last drops of water, surrounding him with my love, protecting him from the world battering at his heart.
“Mandatum novum do vobis…a new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.” The traditional antiphon sung at the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday underscores the principal meaning the Church has attached to this practice for centuries – charity. The Church tells us this is a teaching moment, a demonstration of how we should treat our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here, too, we see an image of Christ’s self-emptying, taking on what only slaves would have done, for never would the host stoop to wash the feet of guests. I remain struck by the vision of such humility that one early homilist conjured for his community, “He who pours the water into the rivers and the pools tipped some water into a basin.” It is a strong call to humility in service, but I sometimes wonder if the strength of that image drowns out other, subtler lessons.
St. Ambrose, in his treatise on the sacraments, challenges us to see the washing of the feet as more than an act of hospitality and humility, or even charity. “See the humility, see the grace, see the sanctification.” Learn, he says, how it is a sacrament, a mystery, a sacred sign of God at work in our lives.
In Ambrose’s fourth-century Milan, the washing of the feet was celebrated along with the rite of baptism. The bishop and priests washed the feet of the newly baptized, not primarily out of humility, though that was certainly a desirable effect, but to offer a bit of extra sacramental protection for the new Christians, to keep them from being “tripped up” by Satan.
Both Christ’s careful attention to this undignified task in the midst of a companionable meal, where He goes so far as to fill the basin himself, and the early bishop’s desire follow the triumph of baptism and offer to their sisters and brothers a more ordinary touch of grace, speak to me of a God whose love tends to all the small and messy details even in the midst of momentous occasions, a love that can change a basin of water and a towel into sacred signs.
As the Triduum unfolds these next days, we will celebrate the mysteries of our redemption with great solemnity and grandeur. Yet I find myself drawn to the contemplation of this small scene, the Creator of the oceans stepping aside to fill a basin with water, enfolding His followers’ feet with His hands, surrounding them with His love like a shield in the face of a world about to batter body, mind and their very souls. A sacred mystery indeed.
Lord, in your mercy give us living water, always springing up as a fountain of salvation: free us, body and soul, from every danger, and admit us to your presence in purity of heart. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen. – From the Rite of Blessing of Holy Water
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.