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On April 17, 2014, Pope Francis will visit the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi home and wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities. The ritual will happen on Maundy Thursday, which remembers the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles prior to their Passover meal.
Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis made headlines when he washed the feet of two women at a Rome youth prison, a sharp departure from the foot-washing of 12 priests in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica.
Over many years, the usual papal ritual has been for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 selected priests in an endeavour to mirror Jesus’ action at the last supper. Pope Francis has looked to move away from this careful and beautiful choreography towards something more meaningful.
As Pope Francis does this, he symbolically takes the place of Jesus and his message is the same. Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Pope Francis is saying the same to those who accept his leadership: “If I, you spiritual leader, have washed the feet of the elderly and infirm, the least you can do is treat them as human beings and honour them by serving them as you would serve your Lord.”
This is the most obvious challenge in this passage for those of us who want to faithfully follow Jesus. If I was to stop here, we’d have something worthwhile to think about as the service continues.
However, it is not the only challenge.
Peter’s response to Jesus: “You will never wash my feet,” carries another challenge which for some of us may be more significant.
So often our focus in this service is on Jesus, and rightly so. His humility and servant love call for a response. And so, perhaps, we make a mental note to be a little more generous in the way we deal with other believers. Or we feel something as the service progresses – our emotions are affected and we feel like behaving differently.
But what does the story feel like, if instead of identifying with Jesus, we take Peter’s place. … What was it that provoked Peter to say: “You will never wash my feet.”
Was it a sense that it wasn’t right? Perhaps Peter felt that a leader should not do something usually done by the lowest of slaves.
Was it embarrassment? My feet are so dirty, they’ve got corns and bunyons, my toes are mis-shapen. I don’t want you to see.
Or was it embarrassment for another reason? Did none of the disciples want the job? Were they looking round at each other wondering who would crack first? And then shock, horror – it is Jesus who picks up the slave’s towel.
Was it pride? Under no circumstances am I going to be so demeaned as to have you touch my feet.
What do you think it was that provoked Peter’s response? .Take time to think about it. …….
Then I’d like to ask you a few other questions.
What is it that governs your decision on Maundy Thursday, when you are presented with the opportunity in church to have your feet washed. What is it that keeps you in your seat? Or come to that, what is it that propels you out of your seat to come forward to have a foot washed?
Or, when someone offers to serve you in another context, or seeks to help you, what is your response? Would it be one of these? ‘I am not prepared to accept charity.’ ‘Go away, I don’t want your help.’ ‘What is in it for you?’ ‘There must be a catch!’
What governs your decision? Is it a sense of propriety? Is it embarrassment? Is it pride? … Is your response like that of Peter: “You will never wash my feet.”
It is often easier to serve than be served; easier to serve than to take praise for our service; perhaps even, easier to give than to receive.