Why, on the night that Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, does he begin the evening by washing the disciples’ feet? What is the connection?
Jesus has a way of taking the familiar and turning the meaning on its head. Echoed throughout his teaching is the lesson of humility: If you want to be first in the Kingdom be last and the servant of all. When the disciples jostle for position, he takes a child and says ‘if you don’t accept the Kingdom in a childlike manner you cannot enter it.’ If you want to live, then die.
The disciples would have been familiar, as a part of hospitality, that on entering a house a servant would wash guests’ feet after a journey. As if in a sense of urgency, to re-enforce the message of humility and servanthood, Jesus-God in flesh- washes his disciples’ feet. He washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, whom he knows will betray him; of Peter, who will deny him three times and of the others who will abandon him.
Despite Peter’s protestations, Jesus states unless he, Peter, allows God to kneel in the dust and wash his feet, he cannot enter and participate in the Eucharistic meal. There can be no asserting of self and of rights here. The disciples, and we of course, are called likewise to the way of humility by allowing the Servant King to wash us in preparation for a meal such as this- a participation in Christ.
Jesus in this very act elevates the dignity of the lowly and despised and unseen; the disciples will never see a servant in the same light again as the servant now becomes an icon of Christ. Yet more importantly he reveals the very nature and shape of the Church’s ministry and mission.
Whenever the Church has forgotten this lesson and the People of God have courted power, it has always ended badly and obscured the Life of Christ within it.
The priest is not the Master of the Faith, its beliefs and liturgy, but rather called to be a faithful servant to it. The People of God also are not Masters of the Church’s mission or its liturgy but are asked in humility to be subject to it.
In this humble service of priest and people the life of Christ in this Eucharist is seen more clearly, is more tangible to our perception and deepens Christ’s life within us.
In the crisis that will engulf the disciples soon after this meal, it is these actions of Jesus that will provide the shape and meaning that emerges from the chaos to come. It is the anchor that will hold firm in the storm that threatens to overwhelm and obliterate us. Remember God kneeling in the dust, washing our feet and at table crying out “This is my body; this is my blood.” Divine love will arise from the chaos triumphant in the end.