• August 11, 2009

"He began to wash their feet…”

Awa and Severine in Dakar’s garbage, Senegal, March 2003.

This article was written by Rev. Thierry de Roucy for the French magazine of Heart’s Home, “D’un Point-Coeur a l’autre”, pub­lished in December 1996-March 1997.

The last day of the pil­grimage Jesus made on our poor earth was filled with unex­pected rich­ness. He washed the feet of His dis­ci­ples and offered the Church the embryo of what would become the sacra­ment of repen­tance; He gave them the new com­mand­ment; He gave them His Body and His Blood and insti­tuted the sacra­ment of the Eucharist; He con­ferred on them His mis­sion and cre­ated the sacra­ment of order. Whereupon, having earnestly desired it, He par­took of the Passover with His dis­ci­ples. At the end of the meal, He left to pray in the Garden of Olives and went through a ter­rible agony, an alarming lone­li­ness; He seemed, all of a sudden, invaded by all the anguish of the world. Finally, betrayed by Judas, rec­og­nized by the kiss given by His betrayer, He was arrested by a cohort of sol­diers. His hour had arrived. The next day, He was con­demned, cru­ci­fied between two ban­dits, and at three o’clock He died.

Thus the events rolled on. Jesus was so eager to assure His dis­ci­ples that He wasn’t leaving them alone, that He gave them sign after sign of His pres­ence. At each one He seemed to say, “Per­haps I am going away, but above all I’m staying… You will not lack for any­thing… I am not leaving you…” And it is true, since He sent us His Spirit!

Jesus’ many ges­tures and words on this Holy Thursday are there to show a lim­it­less, infinite, unex­pected love… In the face of such bounty, the Bride—the name given to the Church—is speech­less. Such mercy! It’s incred­ible! The poor Church, so small, so frail, so fragile, is over­whelmed by the bold­ness of her Beloved!

The pas­sion at Heart’s Home is to love—to pro­claim to all who are suf­fo­cating from a lack of ten­der­ness, who ago­nize in lone­li­ness—the crazy love that is offered to their hearts. The gaze of the mis­sion­aries often joins the Cenacle and Gethsemane, since they say so much about their voca­tion. They con­tem­plate each of Jesus’ ges­tures, and listen to each of His words, in order to embrace His atti­tude of offering. “Jesus got up from table, removed his outer gar­ments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the dis­ci­ples’ feet…” Let’s enter into the love pas­sion of Jesus, into His pain pas­sion; let’s enter into the mis­sion of the mis­sion­aries, allowing our­selves to be indwelt by this ges­ture.

1. He washed their feet as though He was demonstrating His (their) servant mission.

The fes­tival meal had prob­ably barely started. If the Passover meal usu­ally takes place with a cer­tain gravity, this year it was greater yet: from here the Lord was going to insti­tute His own Passover. And although Jesus nat­u­rally under­stood this event, the Apostles only had a pre­mo­ni­tion. Something big, some­thing like a drama was going to take place, but what? When Jesus got up we can imagine the curious, uneasy looks of His dis­ci­ples: “What’s He going to do? Is he already going to leave us?” The Master stepped aside. He took off His clothing. This intrigued them even more. For a meal such as this, shouldn’t one rather get dressed? Why, then, does He seem to be get­ting undressed?

Jesus had already lost the priv­i­leges of His divinity; from here on out He seemed to lose His rights as Lord and Master; He was pre­senting Himself as a poor ser­vant. This time, His path left no doubt. He was fol­lowing a rough des­cent, and He may have been afraid to drink the cup to its dregs, He didn’t try to pro­tect Himself, He didn’t try to impress anyone; He took off His tunic. And, in front of each of His friends He got on His knees like a beggar, with a basin of water and a towel as His only weapons His gaze was strong and, at the same time, per­fectly humble. He seemed to be imploring with an immense respect for each one’s freedom: “Do you want…?” In this way the Christ revealed His mis­sion: He is Servant —ser­vant of His Father’s plans, ser­vant of humankind. And by ful­filling the hum­blest ser­vice, He ful­filled the most sub­lime ser­vice: the lib­er­a­tion of humanity. Jesus plunged His dis­ci­ples’ feet into the water; He rubbed them with His own hands; He wiped them with the towel that, according to Adrienne von Speyr, rep­re­sented the Church reaping the over­abun­dant grace of God. He washed their feet, and thereby each one found his heart puri­fied. Each of the Lord’s ges­tures—in­cluding the most external of them—joined with the deepest inti­macy of His heart.

He was going to look at the men while putting Himself under them, like a child looks at grownups, like a bent old man lifts up his head, like a par­a­lytic… And He was going to let His dis­ci­ples look down from above, as though He were accepting their judg­ment, as though He were accepting them as His mas­ters. He put Himself below, way below, to raise up those who feared Him, to raise up the whole human race.

At a given moment in their exis­tence young people get up, they leave the table of their pre­sent life as though they were being called to another table. Someone seems to have given them a sign—­someone with an invis­ible face, of which some people guess the Name. They step aside. They seem to be get­ting ready to leave on an extraor­di­nary voyage where any bag­gage is too much. It seems they are trying to get rid of every­thing they have. They want to have empty hands in order to have full hearts. So that’s the way of it: they take nei­ther medicine, nor pen, nor com­puter. As tools for their activity, they have only their body and their cross.

Soon they go to another table. They bend over, they get on their knees. From way down they look toward their new mas­ters: poor chil­dren with hearts tat­tered by lone­li­ness, vio­lence, and the impu­rity of those who are near them. They look on them as though sowing hope and pleading with them to accept the friend­ship being offered: “Ri­cardo, do you want to be my friend?” Some of them, in answer, throw stones or show their fists: “You won’t wash my feet. No, never!” Others throw them­selves into their arms: “Oh, Lord! Not just my feet, but my hands and head, too!” Finally, beyond the reac­tions of vio­lence and extreme ten­der­ness, a single cry: “I want to be loved, but I want it all the way to the end!” Thirst for an infinite love!

No more rev­o­lu­tionary ges­ture exists than the Washing of the Feet: it unseats all learning, it upsets all hearts. God, rub­bing people’s feet? So, it’s God, is it? So, that’s what His power is? So, that’s how humanity’s sal­va­tion is ful­filled? At Heart’s Home we believe that true rev­o­lu­tions are not eco­nomic, polit­ical or tech­nical. They emanate from the order of love. Wasn’t Saint Vincent de Paul more rev­o­lu­tionary than Robespierre, Mother Teresa more than Marx or Ché? And doesn’t the one who kneels down make people hap­pier than the one who foists a yoke on them? It seems quite simple, after the fashion of the Master, to restore peo­ples’ dig­nity.

2. He washed their feet as the sealing of a commitment.

The incar­na­tion is a mar­riage. It is the most inti­mate of mar­riages. No man mar­ries a woman, no person joins a cause to the extent that the Word was wedded to humanity. By His incar­na­tion in the womb of a woman, He was wedded to flesh, to nature. He became a Jew; He became “the son of Joseph and Mary.” Then, without being a sinner, He was mar­ried to the sinful con­di­tion. Like no other, He suf­fered the con­se­quences of sin in his spirit and body: He expe­ri­enced terror, anguish, sad­ness, death. He didn’t run away from human reality. He met it head on because He chose to ful­fill His voca­tion of Redeemer by taking on the whole of reality, by mar­rying it all.

Jesus sees the feet of Andrew, James and John. He knows they were dirty. Isn’t it always the feet that get dusty, that get irri­tated and wounded? So, the longer He looks at the dis­ci­ples’ feet, the deeper He goes. As the Lord exam­ines each member, His gaze pierces all the way to the inten­tions of the heart: “You are pure; not all of you, how­ever…” Across each of the parts He joins together the whole, even as every par­tial con­fes­sion emerges and takes its place in the frame­work of the whole con­fes­sion.

For the dis­ci­ples, this ges­ture of the Master cre­ated a new rela­tion­ship with Him. One after the other, they dis­cov­ered that they were known by Him like no one else knew them—not even their wives, not even their closest friends, not even they them­selves. The Lord knew. He probed their souls and their hearts. He knew every­thing about them; they were naked before Him and yet, they were not afraid, they feared nothing. On the con­trary, they tasted a remark­able peace….They had the oppo­site expe­ri­ence of the Jews who were undressed by their exe­cu­tioners in the camps, mocked and wounded to the most inti­mate depths. The look of the Lord does not judge; He recre­ates His friends through for­give­ness, He strengthens them. His look is wedded to them; He weds every­thing about them, while ele­vating that which they are through an unheard of respect. He makes them attain their true calling. Wasn’t it at this moment that Simon really became Peter? At that point, the love of Christ for each of His friends was so ardent that they burst into sobs, as though their hearts were decid­edly too narrow to wel­come such a gift.

Thus, the Washing of the Feet was more than a simple washing of feet; it was the act chosen by Christ to man­i­fest to each one the unique and infinite love with which He seized them. It was a mar­riage act, the mark of the covenant that He sealed with each of those he was saving; it was like the fer­mata of His incar­na­tion. It was the most beau­tiful kiss of mercy on misery, with the most saving power.

The whole mis­sion of the mis­sion­aries has as its aim to repro­duce the act of the Washing of the Feet: “If, there­fore, I have washed your feet, me, your Lord and Master, you also must wash each others feet for one another. I set the example for you so that you may act in the same way I have acted towards you.” This mis­sion, in a cer­tain way, is a mis­sion of con­fessor in the mea­sure that it con­fronts dark­ness in a battle that is some­times vio­lent. The mis­sion­aries are going to visit the garbage dumps and will not block their noses; they will go in prisons and will not put on bul­let­proof vests; they will meet lepers and AIDS vic­tims in hos­pi­tals and will not wear sterile gloves. They will breathe the pesti­len­tial odors of dis­charges; they will look into the eyes of pris­oners; they will kiss lepers. And beyond this con­tact, it is the hearts of their friends that they will face: putrid hearts, leprous hearts, impris­oned hearts. And worse, it is their own heart that they will dis­cover: a heart that is putrid, leprous and impris­oned. The temp­ta­tion to flee this hell is great. The call we receive is to hold on, to firmly hold fast. There is that which needs washing. And to wash is to kiss. And to kiss is to wed. And to wed is to save.

Each day the mis­sion­aries per­form acts that appear trivial. They wash an alco­holic woman who is bathed in her vomit; they help chil­dren to gather, in the rich neigh­bor­hoods, garbage to feed the family pigs; they listen to a papa from the area whose bad behavior got him into prison. Before each one—and before them­selves, because each meeting with another is matched by a new encounter with self—they get on their knees, and they look, and they wash with their tears, and they appease with grace. And the more time passes, the smaller they feel before such a mys­tery of suf­fering. Soon they are not on their knees any more; they are pros­trate. All naked­ness is uncov­ered to its depths: more than ever they become the ear that is filled with secrets, the eye that wel­comes, the heart the serves as a refuge. Hereafter, they have the atti­tude of being ready for every secret.

All these daily acts take on a dimen­sion that only love can confer. If, for the sake of the Lord, washed feet mean sins removed, we cannot doubt that the work of the mis­sion­aries (and of so many other!) leads to true free­dom—for their friends and for them­selves. They who wash are them­selves washed: that which is rotten becomes deli­cious, dark­ness becomes light, impu­rity becomes pure. The uncov­ering of misery through caring and loving lis­tening becomes a rev­e­la­tion of mercy for sin­ners. That rev­e­la­tion is evan­ge­liza­tion. Washed feet are the out­come of an encounter with the Lord, even as the trivial leads to the sub­lime…

More than that: each con­fronta­tion our mis­sion­aries have with chil­dren’s misery and injury, each true con­fronta­tion, seals a pact with each of those chil­dren. We cannot truly under­stand our­selves each before the other—and those who listen often struggle as much as those who talk; those who see as much as those who are seen—without, from that point on, being bound by a secret that only belongs to the two of you. It is the secret that unites a friend to his friend. It is the secret that unites the hus­band to his wife. It is the secret that unites the con­fessor to the pen­i­tent. It is the secret that unites each soul to God. And this secret, born of the Washing of the Feet, is like the very inti­mate wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion between the mis­sion­aries and each child that he knows by name. Through the child he loves—even unto washing his feet— the mis­sionary mar­ries that child’s people, just as Jesus mar­ried the people of the men while washing, one evening, the feet of James and John.

3. He washes their feet to demonstrate to them their dignity.

To really under­stand humanity, we must see it through the eyes of the Redeemer. Indeed, the per­cep­tion that people have of them­selves, left to their own resources, is always marked by imbal­ance: either they exalt them­selves to heaven or beat them­selves down to noth­ing­ness. They oscil­late between exag­ger­a­tion and reduc­tion. All ide­olo­gies are per­verted by that ten­dency: for some the human race is every­thing; for others it is nothing. This is what makes them, in the long run, poorly adapted to reality and leads to the most spec­tac­ular fail­ures where all people, sooner or later, end up. Some people con­sis­tently see them­selves as though in a shrinking mir­ror—and they float on the waters of despair and melan­choly. Others gaze upon them­selves through an enlarging mirror, and they are filled with pride. Still others never stop vac­il­lating: all in the same day they feel some­times blessed with an extraor­di­nary power, some­times inca­pable of any­thing. And it’s true: to under­stand our­selves exactly the way we are, putting together the man­i­fold dimen­sions that live within us, takes a wisdom of which none of us is endowed—ex­cept, per­haps, the Immaculate One.

Christ’s pres­ence at the feet of Peter, James and Judas makes humanity known to us humans. He makes us under­stand our incred­ible dig­ni­ty—after all, the Lord made us only a little less than god­s—and our ter­rible misery. We were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. We humans are imbued with such dig­nity that God did not hesi­tate to be incar­nated to save us. On the other hand, we are so wounded that we will need the wounds of the cross to restore us to our beauty as sons and daugh­ters. Like the Prodigal Son, each of us is invited to live in the Father’s house, yet we go tramping among the pigs! We are king and slave, free and pris­oner. This is the under­standing that Jesus offers to those who let them­selves have their feet washed by Him. This is the under­standing that Jesus brings to Peter after he for­sook Him: in the look of Christ, silent yet bursting with words, the apostle finally dis­covers who he is, and this time accepts it: a sinful man, ter­ribly sinful, for whom God does not hesi­tate to give Himself up in sac­ri­fice.

The image of humanity that the friends in our neigh­bor­hoods have is ter­ribly con­fused. They dis­like other people: those from other neigh­bor­hoods, those with dif­ferent polit­ical view­points, pow­erful and dis­dainful people. Even those in their own neigh­bor­hood: vio­lent and despairing people. We can easily imagine the ques­tions that come to their minds: What good is the human race? What is it worth? Isn’t it a worth­less obses­sion? And yet, among them chil­dren are born—­many chil­dren—­like an attempt, ever renewed, to believe in the beauty of humanity, like an irra­tional hope in God, Creator of humankind.

There where the mis­sion­aries live, fam­i­lies live in vile huts, women are treated vio­lently, some­times torn apart, little ones are killed for just a few dol­lars—a matter of “cleaning up” the streets! People’s dig­nity seems hardly more than that of cats or rats. The arrival of the mis­sion­aries in a neigh­bor­hood is not meant to be a lesson, not even an act of charity! It is meant to be a Gospel that is worth, at the very least, the price of the suf­fering our mis­sion­aries have when leaving their fam­i­lies, friends and coun­tries. This Good News is the good news of the dig­nity of “the least of them,” demon­strated not by char­ters and con­fer­ences, but by dirty hands in ser­vice.

Often, the way others look at you ends up being a look that is turned on them­selves and on their own des­tiny. Our friends are not spared this, either: they see them­selves excluded, rejected and dimin­ished. They see them­selves asso­ci­ated with the garbage they col­lect and sort and sell. They see them­selves dirtied by the looks of those who see that they are dirty. Right now, the look of the mis­sion­aries must, like all car­riers of the Gospel, be so charged with love and respect that it can con­quer every deri­sive and hateful look of which they have been inno­cent vic­tims ever since they opened their eyes. There is no other solu­tion than to get on our knees with Christ in front of Pablito, in front of Pietr and in front of so many others, and to look at each one, while let­ting the light of the love of Christ pass through our eyes. It is as they come to under­stand how God can also love people through people that, little by little, they dis­cover their emi­nent dig­nity.

4. He washes their feet as though revealing to them a greater gift.

If the Washing of the Feet awakens a true joy in the hearts of the apos­tles, it also leaves them stunned, in spite of Jesus’ attempt to explain his act to them: “If I, your Lord and Master…”. Why did He actu­ally begin the meal as He did?! How did He get to that point?! Yes, why?!

An event such as this knocks them off course. They are tempted to stop in their tracks. They look at each other, as though trying to see a defini­tive expla­na­tion of their Master’s atti­tude in the eyes of their com­pan­ions. But no one knows. As a matter of fact, there is no rationale to try to under­stand it on the level of reason; every­thing has to be under­stood on the level of love. In the near future—in the open Heart—the most secret motives will be unveiled. But for now, this is the moment of sur­prise, the reign of bewil­der­ment.

For Christ, the Washing of the Feet is a pre­lude, a begin­ning. It has nothing of the act of com­ple­tion. It is a threshold ges­ture. This Seder meal cannot end with an act of prepa­ra­tion any more than the Mass can end with the Confiteor—even if it already seems to be weighed down with true full­ness. But with Christ, the way always leads from full­ness to full­ness, from one per­fect gift to another. And the dis­ci­ples are just as dis­tressed as they are intrigued when the Lord, when, giving them the bread, He con­tinues: “This is my body!” The gift of mercy, of humble ser­vice, gives way to the gift of the body, of the entire being. Jesus begins by puri­fying His own, because love cannot coexist with half-heart­ed­ness, bit­ter­ness or ego­tism. In each of them, all areas must be freed up to make a place for the infinite love that Christ wants to bring. With each of them, He only wants to find one­ness. The Washing of the Feet has no other meaning than allowing this “com­mu­nion”—this defini­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Master with His dis­ci­ples, a uniting that will tri­umph the moment He pre­sents to the Father as His own all those in His charge.

The first visit that mis­sion­aries pay to a family brings with it some­thing unequiv­ocal. It requires a morning after, other­wise it is use­less—if not crim­i­nal—to knock on someone’s door. Every visit is a promise of “al­ways more.” It urges us toward a total, dis­tinctly Eucharistic gift. Even before approaching friend­ship, it is impor­tant to be aware of that link with the gift, which is intrinsic to love. This avoids rup­tures that are even more painful than the first con­tacts with the neigh­bor­hood were happy.

Each visit begins humbly. Even if the total gift of self may be dor­mant and deter­mined, it is first of all expressed in a guarded way. We knock on the door, we go into the house not to offer right away our body and blood­—who would want that?—but to offer some ser­vice. We can clean an old woman’s house, or run errands for her; we can wipe away a tear or wash a child. The ser­vice is an opening, some­times even an excuse. It is always a pas­sage—at times humil­i­at­ing—­to­ward com­mu­nion, toward a cru­ci­fying union, toward an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: she (the other person) is me; I am she.

5. He washes their feet as though manifesting the true heart of the Father.

The Washing of the Feet allows people to truly under­stand them­selves, but that is not what is most impor­tant. In Christ, kneeling in front of each dis­ciple, it is the heart of the Father that is unmasked. While he is rub­bing His friends’ feet and wiping them with the towel He is car­rying on His belt, Jesus “speaks” the Father, Jesus “lives” the Father: “If you know me, you will know my Father too…” This is an invi­ta­tion to the most deci­sive of intel­lec­tual rev­o­lu­tions. A while ago, on the roads of Thailand, I passed one pagoda after another, and I saw, under their shel­ters, enor­mous, mag­nif­i­cently gilded statues of Buddha. I asked myself, at the time, if the impor­tance of the pagoda wasn’t pro­por­tional to the size of the Buddha. We fatten God; we gild God; we ele­vate God. The path the Lord takes to reveal Himself, how­ever, is just the oppo­site: In Jesus, God abases Himself, God shrinks, God is black­ened. He doesn’t make Himself gigantic, the fear-inspiring God, but humble, the vul­ner­able God. God once appeared on Mount Horeb (could man have under­stood any­thing else)? Now, God has appeared in front of a basin, in the pres­ence of dirty feet. Soon, He will appear in a frag­ment of bread; then…on Golgotha. Will people under­stand that the great­ness of God is in His capacity to abase Himself, that His priv­i­lege is to take the very last place, that His folly is to suffer (fol­lowing a train of thought that escapes us) even more than humankind? And all that to show only one thing: God is mercy.

As the image and por­trait of God, humankind is called to be mer­ciful. This is, per­haps, the most dif­fi­cult thing people have to do. It is also in this area, per­haps, that the gulf between humanity and God can best be seen. Our hearts are judg­mental, ambi­tious, vio­lent! God knows it well and yet, aware of that which is infinite, he dares give us this chal­lenge: “Be per­fect as your heav­enly Father is per­fect…” We might see that per­fec­tion as an abstract idea, but it is prob­ably the most con­crete reality. Plainly, it means: “Be foot washers! Be holy bread­—that is to say, bread to be eaten. Be inno­cent vic­tims! Be! Offer up! Forgive!”

The mis­sion­aries are going to learn—in the slums and among people who are quite wound­ed—to be like God, to leave in Jesus the actions of God, to have His look, to say His words. Through them, the chil­dren, and all of our friends will learn, in their way, to see the face of God leaning over them. Our God is not a far­away God, but a God so close we might forget to see Him. He is a God who wants to rise to the stature of the smallest ones, where they can reach Him. He is a God who exactly meets the needs of each one’s heart. He is a God who shocks the mighty and sat­is­fies the little ones, when He says, “I did not come for the wise and the healthy, but for the sick and for the sin­ners!” He is a God who, in the words of Maurice Zundel, “is heart, all heart, nothing but heart.” He is a Father who is like a mother. He is my God, and I am proud of Him…

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