Following is the prepared text from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s homily on Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016:
Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” John 13:8
To Peter, it was not right for Jesus to wash his feet. “I should be washing your feet, not you washing mine,” he thought.
Foot washing is not a tidy endeavor. People who walk barefoot or in sandals arrive with dust and dirt caked to their feet, smelling like sweaty feet smell. Foot washing was needed after a long journey but, in Peter’s mind and in the “wisdom of the day,” it was not to be done by the Master; it was the work of slaves or servants. Still, Jesus insisted (Jn 13:8), “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
In washing their feet, Jesus was doing more than an act of hospitality; He was teaching them the impact of His suffering and death, that it was necessary for their redemption: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” The washing of feet by Jesus teaches us why the divine Son of God chose to take human flesh and be born of the Virgin Mary, precisely so He could suffer and die for us on the Cross. It is not by accident that, from the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, blood and water flowed forth, a symbol of Baptism, which washes away our sins and give us a new life in Christ. On another occasion, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
In order for you and me to share in Jesus’ divine life, we must allow Him to wash away our sins. We cannot do this for ourselves. The shame and guilt that our sins bring upon us can only be removed by Jesus, when He takes the humiliation on Himself, as He did on Calvary, and which He did symbolically by washing the feet of His disciples. In order to enter the Kingdom of God, you and I must become like children, allowing someone else to wash us.
The Gospel says about Jesus (Jn 13:1), “He loved His own in the world and He loved them to the end.” Jesus loves us to the end, to the maximum, to the greatest extent possible, even to suffering death for us on the Cross. His love is total and unconditional.
One could say that Jesus turns the social pyramid of the world upside down. Instead of putting Himself in company with the powerful, the rich and the famous, He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave. He made Himself one with tax collectors and sinners, with the unborn and the suffering, with immigrants and refugees, with prisoners and the marginalized.
On the night before He died, He made Himself one with the least of society, with the ones who do the dirty jobs that no one else will do.
Then, at the Last Supper, Jesus told His Apostles to do two things in His memory: to celebrate the Eucharist and to wash one another’s feet.
In the First Letter of John, the Beloved Disciple writes (1 Jn 3:16), “The way we have come to know love was that He laid down His life for us: so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
To wash others’ feet expresses a desire to put others first, to show them they matter, that no matter what society may say, you love them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Imagine with what tenderness Jesus knelt down before each of His disciples, how He took their feet in His hands as if He was taking the chalice; how carefully He touched and kissed them to show them their dignity. By washing their feet, Jesus did not diminish His authority as their Master. Rather, He was exercising authority in such a way that it touched the heart and built up trust.
Jesus revealed the love of His Father in many ways throughout His earthly life, by healing the sick, multiplying bread, casting out demons and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Then, He showed the Father’s love most fully at the Hour when He passed from this world to the next, when He offered His life in sacrifice on the Cross. And so, gathered with His disciples in an Upper Room, “He loved His own in the world and He loved them to the end.”
He did this by means of two sacred actions: by washing the feet of His disciples and then giving them His own Body and Blood. These two actions are woven together in the life of Jesus; and they can and should be woven together in our lives. For the past 2000 years, wherever the followers of Jesus did these 2 things in memory of Him, the Church has flourished; His Gospel has taken root and has produced good fruit.
Failure, however, to wash each others’ feet has led quickly to the decline of culture and to scandals that have scarred the beautiful face of the Bride of Christ, the Church.
This two-fold way of remembering Jesus keeps us from isolating what we do on Sunday from what we do on Monday and the rest of the week; it keeps us from segregating our prayer from our work, and from dividing our love of God from love of neighbor, and love of spouse and children. When the Sacred Scriptures are read at Mass, it is Christ who is speaking. When we receive Holy Communion, it is Christ whom we receive. When we serve the least of our brothers and sisters, it is Jesus whom we serve
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He was engaging in a deeply eucharistic act. He was making Himself the servant of all.
Let us love one another as Christ loves us.