Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1825-1826

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown, 1825-1826

The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses…And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19a)

This past Holy Thursday I found myself sitting so far back in church that I couldn’t see what was going on in front and for the first time ever it really bothered me.

Normally it isn’t a problem because, as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I often have my eyes closed for quite a lot of the time during Mass. I do it when the Word of God is read and even sometimes during the homily so that I can be less distracted and even place myself in the scenes and stories being presented; and I do it during the Eucharist out of the desire to simply surrender myself to the worship that is being offered.

In such times “seeing” seems to be a source of distraction, something I want to limit.

But on Holy Thursday I wanted to see.

I wanted to see because within all of the beauty and majesty that so often accompany the Mass there is on that day a solemn ritual in which the priest, acting in the person of Christ, kneels and washes the feet of twelve individuals from the congregation in commemoration of Christ’s own washing of the disciples’ feet. It is a stunning and humbling ritual that really brings to life the striking beauty of Christ’s act and, of course, implicitly calls us to follow in his footsteps.

I wanted so badly to see this ritual, to enter into it not only with my heart but also my eyes, but no matter how much I craned my neck, I couldn’t. And so, once again, I closed my eyes–this time out of resignation more than anything.

But as I sat and prayed for the grace to enter into the mysteries, my eyes were opened in a whole new way, for I saw Christ as I had never seen him before. I saw him lovingly, tenderly washing my own feet and, like Peter, I immediately withdrew from even the idea.

How could he, the God of all creation, the Lord of life stoop to such a level as to wash my feet?

The depths of love I sensed in that moment were unfathomable, embarrassing even. But it wasn’t until the next day, Good Friday, that their full significance came to life when, in adoration of the cross, I was able to kiss the nailed feet of the one who so lovingly had washed my own the night before and it hit me anew, almost as if I had never realized it before: it was my sin that drove the nails in.

Please do not misunderstand me to be making the work of Christ on the cross all about me. However, as St. Peter’s speech indicates above, there is a deep sense in which we are all complicit—each and every one of us, that is—in the atrocities of Good Friday—that it is we who have denied him over and over again in our sins and distrust, we who have crucified Our Lord.

“In ways I do not fully understand,” says Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear…”

He goes on to say,

“We did no mean to do the deed, of course. The things we have done wrong seemed, or mostly seemed, small at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel…It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. All the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.”

The flip side of this truth, of course, is that there is also a deep sense in which it is God’s abundant and unfailing love for each one of us that led him to the cross. It is this love with which he knowingly washed (and washes!) the feet of the very ones who would soon betray and deny him—all so that we might be reconciled to him and experience the fullness of his love, of his abundant life or, as Peter says here, “the times of refreshing that come from the presence of the Lord.”

The passage above opens with a curious statement that can be easily overlooked but, in fact, is the key to everything. St. Peter says that “God…glorified his servant Jesus…” which might lead one to believe that in some way Jesus did not participate in the glory of God prior to his Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection. But that is not the case, as is clear in John 17:5. No, it is not the glory of Christ’s divinity that is in question here, but rather the glorification of his humanity, and this for our sake alone for as St. Gregory of Nazianzus states,”That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved

It is precisely because God, in Christ, has taken on everything—every aspect of our humanity and, in the cross, the fullness of our sins however great or manifold—and redeemed it all by that same cross, that we have the hope not of the death to which we, by our sins condemned Him, but abundant life and participation in His own glory, which he so graciously bestows on us.

This is what it means for the God of the universe to wash our feet. There truly can be no greater love.


Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author, speaker and editor.