On the evening of our wedding, after the ceremony and reception, my husband and I knelt down and washed each other’s feet. It was an act of love and humility that we wanted to be the foundation of our marriage. We had a beautiful example: A King who washed the feet of peasants; a Savior who washed the feet of sinners; a Friend who washed the feet of betrayers.
The washing of the disciples’ feet was the act of a dying man. With the last few moments of his precious life, Jesus knelt down. In the last hours with his closest friends, he served. This was the manifestation of the new commandment he was to give moments later at the Last Supper: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Love. This is what it is all about—the meaning of the Christian life. Jesus models love by washing not only the feet of his beloved friends, but of those who will betray him. He knows not only of Judas’ betrayal, but also of Peter’s—which probably stung him even more. He knows Peter, James, and John will fall asleep with him in the Garden. He knows that almost all of his disciples will flee during his torture and crucifixion. And yet he removes his outer garments and kneels to wash their dusty feet.
It would not have been a pleasant affair; their feet would have been caked in dirt and bathed in dust. Perhaps their toenails were long. The feet of these gruff men would have stunk. But I do not imagine that Christ poured just a few drops of water on their feet ceremoniously and then moved on. I believe he spent a few quiet moments with each Apostle, truly washing their feet clean of dirt and grime, and making each feel like the only person in the room. I imagine him drying them tenderly, and looking up with eyes that said, “I do all of this for you.”
Were the Apostles embarrassed by such a vulnerable display of affection? Scripture tells us that Peter recoils and says, “You will never wash my feet.”
For one man to kneel down and wash the feet of another required vulnerability. For the King of Kings to kneel down and wash the feet of sinners required sacrificial, humble, earth-shattering love. This love culminates for us this week on Good Friday, when we commemorate the crucifixion and death of Christ.
While the Church remembers the washing of the disciple’s feet on Holy Thursday, my husband and I have started a tradition of washing each other’s feet on our anniversary. Most recently, we did this on Valentine’s Day. On the day our culture celebrates love, it seemed appropriate to once again remind ourselves of what love actually looks like.
Has anyone ever washed your feet? Perhaps it was part of a Holy Week service at your church or school. Perhaps it was part of a retreat you went on. To have your feet washed is an intimate experience. I think it is often more uncomfortable for the one getting their feet washed than it is for the one doing the washing. In my case, I’m usually worried my feet smell or that my nails aren’t groomed. I’m so worried about what my feet will reveal about me and what the other person is thinking that it’s hard for me to enjoy and appreciate the solemnity and beauty of this moment. Perhaps my thoughts echo Peter: “You will never wash my feet.”
As we draw nearer and nearer to the pinnacle of our faith celebrated in the Triduum, we are probably coming to the end of Lent with dusty feet. We’ve trampled for about forty days in the desert and have probably stumbled in our Lenten observances a few times. Our feet may be caked in inadequacy, sin, or weakness. Maybe you, like me, are thinking so much about what’s on your feet that you’re unable to look Christ in the eye and allow him to thoroughly wash you.
As we enter into Holy Week, I invite you to pray about what keeps you from allowing Christ’s gaze to meet your own. What causes you to join Peter in saying, “You will never wash my feet”? As Pope Francis said during his Apostolic Visit to Cuba, Jesus “came precisely to seek out all those who feel unworthy of God, unworthy of others. Let us allow Jesus to look at us. Let us allow his gaze to run over our streets. Let us allow that look to become our joy, our hope.”
Christ’s response to Peter’s hesitancy is: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Perhaps he is saying that we will be unable to live a life of discipleship if we have not experienced his gaze—the sacrificial love of God. It is this encounter with Christ, with his gaze, that transforms us. We love because we have first been loved—this is our joy, our hope.
This Easter season, may you experience Christ’s life-changing gaze as you allow him to wash your feet.
Questions for Reflection: What keeps you from allowing Christ’s gaze to meet your own? What causes you to join Peter in saying, “You will never wash my feet”?
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Kate Fowler is the Blog Editor for the Catholic Apostolate Center. She received her Master's in Leadership for the New Evangelization from the Augustine Institute.