We reflect on this picture of Jesus washing the feet of Peter. The Washing of Feet is a ceremony performed as part of the Maundy or Holy Thursday liturgy. We ask ourselves some questions.
Is Peter entirely comfortable having his feet washed?
Is he embarrassed?
We notice the tender way Jesus washes those dusty and maybe smelly feet. We remind ourselves of the custom of foot washing. The region was a dusty and dirty one. They wore sandals so foot washing was necessary after travelling and before eating, especially for the Passover Meal. It was the duty of the most menial servant to wash the feet of guests.
When the disciples gathered with Jesus it was soon after they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. In an atmosphere of competing for power, position and importance it was hardly likely that any of them would do such a lowly task as wash each others’ feet. No doubt they would have wanted to wash Jesus' feet but not each others, unless, of course, for a special friend. So Jesus moved to wash their feet. Doubtless they would have been shocked and seemingly speechless until Jesus reached Peter.
Let us read again John's account of this event:
"Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example so that you can do the same. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
"I have given you an example so that you can do the same". He was asking them for a change of heart, asking them to internalize what they had seen and heard, to have a different outlook, to be motivated by love, to look to him for inspiration and guidance, to walk in his path, to do to others as they would wish others to do to them, to serve his Father's people in a humble, sincere and loving manner, to notice when people need help, to be available to give comfort and support, to be able to take the lowest place, to do the menial tasks, to be unashamed to be the servant, to go forth into the world as his messengers just as he had done in obedience to his Father.
The act of Jesus in washing their feet is one of love, humility and service. He is stressing that it is love which will be the power enabling them to serve. His Father's Kingdom is one that operates on love, a love that is tough, sacrificial, tender, humble and reveals itself in service of each other. The seemingly powerless have the greater power. The foot washing was a symbol of them being freed and cleansed by the forgiveness of Jesus and equipping them to go out in his name.
Jesus was challenging Peter and the disciples to change, and in this Holy Week he challenges us too.
Can we be honest and resolute and admit that healing, change, renewal have to be faced? Are we able to allow Jesus to wash our feet, to work on that part of us that needs change, healing, renewal and forgiveness? Are we able to accept that Jesus wants to make us whole, holy and fully human? Are we able to be conscious of his healing power of love in us every moment of every day?
The late Cardinal Hume referred to the Washing of Feet as "divine courtesy", the courtesy, regard and love which God has for each of us. He asked "Can we match that courtesy by loving in return?".
Pope Benedict xvi, in writing about the washing of feet, says it illustrates the way Jesus washes our feet all through our lives. He doesn't want to trample on us, he kneels down before us so as to exalt us. The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be small. Jesus' whole self is there in the action of foot washing. It portrays the dignity of Christian Service. Jesus is our Servant King.
Jesus kneels before each one of them, including Judas, to wash their feet. He wants to show his disciples and us that power is released through powerlessness, the death of self. He wants them to learn that the greatest is the least and the least is the greatest in his Father's Kingdom. He wants to show that if they are too caught up in a worldly mindset of power they will be powerless in the spiritual sense. Jesus tells Peter that if he does not agree to having his feet washed he will put himself outside discipleship. Jesus is teaching them that to be part of the Kingdom they need to allow their sins to be washed away, so that his love can operate in them and work through them.
Peter and the other disciples see this action possibly as a purely physical one. Jesus wants them to realise that he will wash away their sins on the Cross. After the Resurrection they will become aware of that. He did say to them "Later you will understand". All Christians would eventually experience the effects of this in the washing of Baptism and in cleansing from sin in the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The disciples have difficulty grasping that the person they looked up to as their Lord and Master could stoop down to wash their feet. They had hoped that he would show himself to be a King, though many times he had reminded them that "his Kingdom was not of this world".
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them
Sr. Mary Barry. rsm Picture-The Washing of the Feet: The Benedictine Nuns of Turvey Abbey