Holy Thursday: Gospel – John 13:1-15

God’s Self-Giving Love . . . What about us?

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 28th March

Immediately after this homily we will re-enact the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of His Twelve Apostles.  The Gospel, that we just heard proclaimed says, “. . . after Jesus had washed their feet, He put on His clothes again and went back to the table (where they were celebrating the Last Supper) and asked them, Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example so that you may do what I have done.”


My brothers and sisters in Christ, this ritual of the “washing of the feet” is particularly important to us who live in today’s secular world that promotes a self-centredness culture of “what’s in there for me?!”  The Gospel values that is symbolised in the washing of the feet contrastingly presents God’s immensely self-giving Love.

The self-centred world in which we live/destroys the bridges that ought to exist between human persons . . . in the face of our insecurities, fears and lack of trust for one another, we tend to tear down bridges and erect walls and retreat behind the artificial security we have built for ourselves.


When we reflect on the reality of the world, we become aware of the brokenness of families, relationships and individuals . . . sufferings of all forms: /thousands do not have enough to eat and educate their children, let alone plan for a better and brighter future.

Instead of building bridges to these people who are in need, we take the love we have and quarantine it in the little room of our hearts . . . we clutch on to our material securities for comfort and share our love only with our children, our friends . . . we will realise that our material securities cannot fully satisfy our deep longings for fulfilment . . . other fears in life will surface . . . the fears of illness, of relationships and families breaking up . . .

The love that God has planted in each of our hearts has to be shared and cannot be contained and kept for ourselves.  It’s like a bird; once it is caged for our self-centred interests and needs, it loses its innate beauty and potential to fulfil its dreams.  A bird is most beautiful when it is in flight and can soar into the skies.  If we reflect on the type of love that God has planted in our hearts, its beauty is most perfectly revealed if we use it in self-giving ways.  When love is caged and kept for our own needs and not shared, it withers away and eventually dies.


The love that God has planted in our hearts must be lived in the way that Christ has shown us – love has to be self-giving.  The more we are able to give of ourselves the more authentic we become as a person.  So, when we serve and reach out to people in need, whether it is being more compassionate, more forgiving or more generous to someone in our family or a stranger in a slum they in turn help us grow and mature as persons; and the more we are able connect our selfless-giving with Jesus, the more we will grow into what God wants us to be . . . and become.

During the time of Jesus, the feet are considered offensive and unclean.  This is because in the dusty roads, the feet get dirty easily.  Because of the negative connotation of the feet, in a family the washing of the master’s feet was usually performed by a slave.  However, in Jewish Law, such a task was reserved only to a foreign slave as it was considered even too lowly for a Jewish slave to do it.  However, out of respect and love, a devoted wife or a filial son or daughter would readily do it for her husband or father.  Occasionally, as a sign of deep detachment and veneration, disciples would do it for their teacher.


However, for Jesus being a Master and Teacher, to wash the feet of His apostles was unheard of in any Jewish literature; not a single instance can be found.  In doing so, Jesus was living out the Gospel values that He taught, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”  (Mk 10:43-45).

This washing of the feet by Jesus was more than showing His apostles that their services have to be humble.  As the foot washing ritual was done in the middle of the Last Supper, it reveals a deeper truth that the “foot washing was intimately connected with His Death on the Cross.  It reveals that as Jesus’ disciples we must be, humble and self-giving to the point of laying down our life for the sake and salvation of others.  As Jesus says, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mk 10.45).

In the Last Supper reflection, Henri Nouwen explains that when someone takes much pain to cook you a meal, and is urging you, “eat more and drink up, as I prepared this for you . . . he is not simply giving you food, but giving you himself . . . He is also saying . . . “be my friend, be my companion, be my love – be part of my life – I want to give myself to you.”


In the Eucharist, Jesus gives Himself totally.  The bread is not simply a sign of Jesus’ desire to become our food; the cup not just as sign of His willingness to be our drink.  As God becomes fully present to us in Jesus, so Jesus becomes fully present to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

God not only became flesh for us 2,000 years ago in a country far away.  God also becomes food and drink for us now at this moment of the Eucharistic celebration.  God does not hold back; He gives all.

Christ came 2,000 years ago to build bridges between heaven and earth, and between human persons of all kinds of rank, race and religions.  He reminded us that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Me.”  Today, Jesus reminds us, “Do you understand what I have done for you when I washed your feet?

Jesus calls you and I to continue His mission of revealing the perfect total self-giving Love of God.  As His disciples, Jesus wants our love to be as full, as radical, and as complete as His own.

Will we say to Jesus, my Lord and Master, I will do what you have shown me and be a humble slave and servant of others . . . or will we say, “Lord, thank you for washing my feet, but sorry, I find it too difficult to humble myself to serve others . . . Jesus would then say, “Yes, I am aware that you are still weak in your love for Me, but are you willing to begin with small sacrifices of services and simple acts of humility just out of love for Me?”

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.


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