Jesus carefully prepared his followers for this moment. We think of all the meals he shared and all the parables he told about banquets. We think of all those with whom he sat at table, including sinners, prostitutes and even tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. We think of the parable of the wedding banquet and its different categories of guest: those guests who refuse to come to the banquet when invited, those who arrive but are not wearing their wedding garment and those unsuspecting guests who are ushered into the wedding hall from the street. All of it leads to this moment.
The day before Palm Sunday, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is found once more at table, this time in Bethany with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. At some point during that meal, Mary anointed the feet of Jesus and the house was “filled with the fragrance of the ointment”. Judas objected, complaining of the waste of money, but Jesus saw it as an act of love. Up to this point, Jesus had always been the guest at meals, but at the Last Supper he is the host and it is as host that he washes the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was to be expected at a meal, but normally it was done by a servant or a slave as the guests arrived. Jesus waits until they are all seated at the table before he does anything. When he does wash feet, it takes place in silence until, on this occasion, Peter objects. “Never,” says Peter. Once again, this act of love is misunderstood.
Jesus doesn’t perform this foot washing as a slave would have done. He does it in freedom and from a position of strength. He removed his outer garment, washed their feet and then put his garment back on again. What St John actually says is that Jesus laid down his garment and afterwards took it up again. This is how he refers to the laying down and taking up of his life, and to the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Shepherd and foot washer are one and the same and his action places a challenge before the apostles. This is the fragrance that filled the upper room on this holy night.
As guests at this Eucharist we are also challenged, as was Peter, to accept Jesus Christ as he is and not the way we want him to be. To accept ourselves as we are and not as the brave heroes we imagine ourselves to be. Delusion has no place around the altar of God. When Zacchaeus climbed the tree, before Jesus invited himself to his house for supper, what was he hoping to see? I don’t think he was hoping to see anything, I think he wanted to know how Jesus would look at him.
This evening we need to ask the Lord to look at us with the same kindly eyes with which St Luke tells us he looked at Peter across the courtyard on this very night, so that we too might be converted. “For after the cock crowed Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter and Peter went outside and wept bitterly.” What did Peter see in those eyes? He saw what Mary of Magdala, Matthew, Zacchaeus, Mary of Bethany and many others saw. He saw what St Benedict would centuries later put in his Rule – “that we should never despair of God’s mercy” and that we should in turn be merciful ourselves. This is the challenge of the Eucharist; this is what it means to wash feet.
Abbot Brendan Coffey OSB