29 March [Holy Thursday]
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
St Augustine had a profound sense of humility. The three essentials of any spiritual life, he wrote, are humility and humility and humility. Predictably he is moved by Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. “It is He into whose hands the Father had given all things, who now washes the disciples’ feet: and it was precisely while knowing that ‘He had come from God, and was going to God,’ that He performed this task of a servant – a servant to humanity.”
And yet Augustine feels he has to twist the words around so that in the washing of the feet, Peter should come first! “[The text] says ‘Then he came to Simon Peter,’ as if He had already washed the feet of some of the others... But who can fail to know that the most blessed Peter was the first of the apostles? So we are not to understand that Jesus washed some others first. Instead He began with Peter.”
It seems to say that while it is all right for Jesus to make himself least of all, it would not be right for Peter. It is a curious contradiction, and the first of many silly claims to precedence in religious circles. A preacher was heard to say, “It’s my humility that makes me the man I am.” There’s a kind of humility that is ‘official’ but not real – as when people used to sign letters ‘Your humble servant....’
The astounding thing, commemorated in today’s Liturgy, is that Jesus was genuinely humble; he wasn't just going through the motions. His washing their feet was in keeping with his whole life. He had queued up, shoulder to shoulder with sinners, for John’s baptism of repentance (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21). Yet John’s gospel doesn't show him being baptised by the John the Baptist, nor of course queuing up for such a baptism. Instead, he is said to be just “walking by” (1:35). This is in keeping with the image of Jesus in the fourth gospel: he is walking above the ground rather than on it. This, even though the immortal words “The Word became flesh and lived among us” are from this gospel. It is hard to follow something through to the very end. Jesus “loved [the disciples] to the end” (today’s reading). Why conceal the fact that he was also humble to the end? The two go together.
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