Holy Thursday: Radical Call to Be Served and to Serve

When I was in second grade, the pastor at our family’s parish invited me to be one of the 12 folks to participate in Holy Thursday’s foot washing. (I think I was invited because spring vacation coincided with Holy Week that year, and my mom had taken me to daily Mass a few mornings during the break.)

This was special and important. I remember almost everything.

My mom called my dad at work to tell him about the invitation, and to suggest, as I listened in, that I be allowed to wear my new Easter shoes for the Thursday liturgy: beautiful blue-suede Pumas.

That night, after the homily, I took a seat near the altar, took off my Pumas, and Fr. Greg washed and dried my feet. He smiled warmly, calmly. This didn’t happen at other Masses.

I think of that night and my 7 year-old sense of curiosity every Holy Thursday. The foot-washing still catches me off-guard when it starts.

Maybe, by saving it for one time a year, it’s meant to jolt us awake and inspire some child-like wonder. By breaking from the norm, the washing signals: this is crucial. Don’t miss this. There’s a big lesson here.

The practice has its biblical roots in tonight’s Gospel reading from John 13. It’s the only Last Supper account of the four that does not have the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus takes no bread, takes no cup, says no blessing.

Instead, during the meal, he gets up, and ties a towel around his waist. He washes the feet of his friends.

Feet in First-Century Palestine must have been disgusting — dirty, blistered, cracked. This sort of washing was the work of servants.

This is where and how Jesus, our Lord and King, wants to spend his time. He goes to places that are ugly. He models love through self-giving service.

Tonight’s foot-washing at church reminds us of how Jesus wants to be involved in our lives.

First, Jesus calls us to himself to be washed: to be cared for and nurtured. How difficult it can be to allow ourselves to be served, to admit that we need help.

Second, Jesus sends us out: serve others as I have served you. “Do this in memory of me,” he says during the other three Gospels’ Last Supper accounts. It applies here as well. We are to go to the margins of our societies, leaving our comfortable places frequently, because that is what Jesus did.

What a powerful example set by Pope Francis today, as he celebrated Mass at a juvenile prison, washing the feet of 12 inmates — young men and women, Catholics and Muslims.

We see in that symbolic action and in the words of Jesus an urgent call to let ourselves be served and to serve. How can we live these commands in our daily lives this coming Easter season?

Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates at a juvenile prison in Rome.

Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates at a juvenile prison in Rome.

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