Between the Lines: Holy Week, washing feet.

St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo.

In John 13:1-20, Jesus teaches his disciples a new way of living their lives, in service to others. No doubt he catches them off guard with both the subject and the way he teaches it.  Supper’s over and they’re wondering, “what next?” Perhaps a story, he’s good at that. Perhaps a little more wine. Perhaps a song. But no, Jesus has something else in mind to end their evening together:

“Fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.” (John 13:3-5).

And we wonder, what are you thinking, Jesus? In the midst of all this talk of body and blood and sacred meals you start washing feet…

What I was trying to teach them I am still trying to teach. Some people get it, some refuse to hear what I’m saying because it’s not convenient and falls outside of their understanding of what faith in me means. But the lesson is this: You don’t become like me by belonging to some exclusive inner circle, some elite club, nor by having the correct political views. To become like me, you must learn to strip down your lives to what is essential and give your self in service to others. You must do the jobs others don’t want to do, must risk getting dirty and involved in things you would rather ignore.

You should have seen the looks on their faces as I came around with a towel around my waist and carrying a basin of water. They had no idea — could not comprehend at first — what I was trying to teach them. And even when they figured it, they wanted nothing to do with it. “No, no,” Peter said, “Let me do it to you.” His time would come, but this was my time.

But it eventually came to them, for actions really do speak louder than words. I saw the lights go on in their eyes, like children learning something that is obvious to the rest of us for the first time. They got it: If you love me, serve others and put them first. Do for them what you would really rather not do. Wash their feet. Gently pour water over their hardened soles and get the dirt out from between their toes. Feel their callouses and blisters. Nurse their open wounds. Pat them dry and put their sandals back on so they can continue their journey. This is the kind of servant I need you to be. The first shall be last and the last, first. Be last. And I will draw you to myself in the fullness of time. I will never forget those who forget themselves for the sake of others.

Singer-songwriter Michael Card has a beautiful song about this story called “The Basin and the Towel,” which includes these lines that we should all memorize:

And the call is to community,
The impoverished power that sets the soul free.
In humility, to take the vow,
that day after day we must take up the basin and the towel.

Ask yourself in silence: How am I called to serve others? Where am I holding back because it’s uncomfortable?

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