Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” John 13:8

It was a beautiful image of the most profound humility ever witnessed. Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, was exercising the duty of a servant. One by one, Jesus went around and cleansed the feet of His disciples. It was the celebration of the Passover. A holy feast, a remembrance of God’s saving action to their ancestors the night they were set free from slavery in Egypt. However, this Passover “remembrance” was undoubtedly one to be remembered and embraced.

The “Foot Washing” portion of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (which is optional) can certainly be a beautiful part of the ritual of which I have a Love/ Hate attitude. Not that I am against washing the feet of those I have been called to serve but, this portion of the liturgy has come to overshadow the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and, in some ways, the passion and death of our Lord on Good Friday. Over the years, people have been erroneously taught that the mandate from Christ to ” Go and do likewise” was, in some ways instituting charity as the eighth sacrament. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus instructed his Apostles to “care for the widow and the orphan” and to “Love your neighbor,” and we must follow His instruction and example. Some parishes have wanted to emphasize this humble, symbolic act of Jesus so much that the entire congregation takes turns washing the feet of their fellow congregants during the liturgy to get a good dose of humility, which totally misses the point.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some feel that this is the yearly opportunity to witness their pastor actually exhibit some humility. I don’t know about other priests, but I am absolutely awash in humility. So much so that I am incredibly proud of my humility. If done correctly and with reverence, the Foot Washing can be an awe-inspiring part of the Holy Thursday Mass, but what is the meaning of this washing?

Peter was overwhelmed by Jesus’ humility and, at first, refused to have his Lord wash his feet. But Jesus says something that rings true for all eternity: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” This was no ordinary washing, it was not in reference only to the washing of Peter’s dirty feet, it was not an act of charity, it was an eternal washing of his immortal soul, and the “water” would soon flow forth from the pierced and Sacred Heart of Jesus Himself.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Jesus would be on a cross, and a Roman soldier would pierce His heart with a lance. From His heart flowed blood and water, the new font of grace and mercy itself. This “Last Supper” with our Lord was the sacramental institution of the cleansing power of His one and perfect Sacrifice, which is now made present to us throughout time in the gifts of Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.

Every time we renew our Baptism, receive His Spirit more deeply into our lives, and consume His sacred Body and Blood, we participate in this cleansing action of Christ to Peter and the other disciples. Jesus looks at each one of us, with a gaze of love, and says, “Unless I wash you…” What is your response to our Lord?

It takes humility to accept the humblest act of mercy ever known. We must humbly acknowledge that we need our Lord to cleanse us, to wipe the dirt from our souls, to redeem us, and to offer us the inheritance of everlasting life. This is the meaning of Foot Washing. We can put up a bit of a fuss as did St. Peter. We too can make these rather overt gestures of humility, these protestations that we are not worthy but unless we humbly acknowledge that Christ died to wash away our sins, that the sole reason for his coming into the world was to undo the original sin of Adam and Eve for us, then we will only have clean feet and a heavy heart.

It is at that Last Supper, the beginning of the first Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that our Lord gazes through Peter to each one of us and offers to cleanse us of all sin. What is your response? How humble are you in your reception of this gift? How deeply do you believe in the saving Sacrifice of our divine Lord?

Reflect, this night, upon those sacred words of our Lord and hear them spoken to you: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Say “Yes” to this offer of perfect humility and mercy from our Lord and let the saving Sacrifice of the Son of God enter more deeply into your life than ever before.

May God bless you.

Rev. Fr. Douglas A. Ondeck