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…