I am sure many of you would like to understand more clearly the meaning and the significance of the “washing of the feet” that we just heard proclaimed and would be re-enacting liturgically in tonight’s Mass of the Last Supper.
In Jewish culture, the washing of the feet is so degrading that the task is reserved only for foreign slaves; even a local slave cannot perform such a lowly task. But, in the Gospel washing, we have Jesus, the Master, the Son of God kneeling at the feet of His disciples, and washing their feet like a foreign slave. Why?
This act and ritual of Jesus’ washing is more than a degrading and humiliating act of an external cleansing of His disciples’ feet. In doing so, Jesus is teaching us that even as He is the divine Lord and Saviour, He is willing to do the lowliest task because He is totally committed to serving His Father’s Will.
So, as I am re-enacting the washing of the feet by Jesus, immediately after this homily, I would like us to all ponder on how Our Lord too is inviting each and everyone of us here to serve Him and His people as selflessly and humbly as we can, like Christ, with God’s graces even to the point of laying down our lives out of love for Him.
More specifically, through the “washing of the feet” Jesus is challenging His disciples and us to be more selfless and humble in the way we live our Christian faith. Humility is a deeper value than service. Many of us can be very selfless in our services in ministries and to the needs of our family and others. But, what Jesus is first challenging you and I tonight is more than our need to serve more, but our need to serve more humbly. By serving humbly we mean, serving as Christ taught and showed us. To serve humbly is not only difficult humanly; it can only be lived out if we have special graces from God.
Many of us can serve generously and selflessly, but the bigger challenge for you and me is to serve as God wants us to serve, not simply us serving in the way that we want to serve. When Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible remove this cup, but not my Will, but Your Will be done,” Jesus is very clear that in what ever He does and in how ever He serves, it is His Father’s Will that is of primary importance; not His Will.
Thus, the “humility” that Jesus show’s us in the “washing of the feet” is more than a lowly task of a foreign slave, but more precisely His invitation to each of us, to use all our gifts, talents and time to serve in accordance to how God wants you and I to serve; not how we personally wish to serve.
Serving in God’s ways, whether as a parishioner, parent or politician is never very easy because we have to put God’s Will and Ways before our ownwills and ways. Our motive is first and primarily toserve God, not others. One year ago, when my Regional Superior asked me to serve our Parish as Parish Priest together with the approval of the Archbishop, as a Jesuit religious, that’s God’s Will for me. If I was to turn down my Superior’s request, and choose to serve in other ministries that are of my interests, then even as I may be doing good work, all the good work that I am doing is not strictly speaking doing what God really wants me to do. This is because for us Jesuit religious, God’s Will comes to us through the directives of our Religious Superiors and the Authority of the Church.
However, for a lay person, to discern God’s Will can be more complex as you do not have religious superiors to tell you what to do. One way of knowing whether you are serving God’s Will or not is to look at the different signs of how your service is affecting you and others, because as Jesus says, “by the fruits you will tell.” This means that if we are serving in God’s ways and in accordance to God’s Will, there will generally be signs that what we are doing brings: more peace, more love, more compassion, more unity, more truth, more care, more selfless service to our family, and to the people we relate to and serve. All these are signs of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives and in the people we serve. Thus, a good question we should ask ourselves and search our hearts tonight is, do our relationships in our family and our service to the parish bring about such Gospel values? If yes, we could say that there are signs that we are on the right tract.
Not long after his conversion, when St Ignatius was fully convinced and deeply passionate about wanting to remain in Jerusalem, and live where the Lord lived, the Franciscan Provincial forbid him to stay because of the dangers of the war at that time. St Ignatius was indignant and tried to persuade the Provincial that what he desired was God’s Will because to live in the homeland of Jesus was good for his spiritual growth. However, when the Provincial told St Ignatius that he had the Bull or the official papers from the Pope to excommunicate anyone who disobeyed him, St Ignatius immediately gave in and obeyed. For St Ignatius, one of the clearest signs of God’s Will in his life was obedience to official Church Authorities.
There are other signs of the presence of God’s Spirit that we can look at like serving the greater universal good of the Church, our services having greater and long-term effects on larger number of people and the like, but, time does not permit us to reflect on them.
However, it may still be beneficial for us to point out the signs of what is not living and serving in God’s ways, because negative points can help clarify what the positive ought to be. The general signs of what is opposite to living and serving in God’s ways are when we are: rigid in our ways and views, negative and critical about people in general, when we are quarrelsome, when we are often the cause of division while working as a team, because we are too protective of our turf, when we begin to gossip, get angry easily and the like. All these traits reveal that we are not moved by the Spirit of God but are moved by the Spirit of division, ego and self-centeredness. These signs do not show the values of what the “washing of the feet” by Jesus teaches, but instead promotes the opposite values.
As I conclude, let us sum up by saying that as our Lord, washed the feet of His disciples, even as He was their Master, and the Son of God, He too is inviting us to wash each others feet so to speak, and be as selfless and humble as He is.
As Jesus’ humility was serving His Father’s Will even to the point of dying a miserable death on the Cross, we too are called always to put God’s Will as our main and only focus in our daily living.
As Jesus’ life and death eventually brought salvation to all peoples, we too are called to be His instruments of peace, truth, love, compassion and unity in our daily living; whether we are serving our family or serving our parish or the poor and needy – for it is by the “fruits” of the way we live that we can tell whether we are truly obeying Jesus’ commandment of “washing the feet” and serving our neighbours or not .
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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