Are you being served?
All through the long harsh Canadian winter, the sounds of coughing, sneezing, and sniffling were commonplace. Viruses and bacteria sensed the vulnerability of weather-weary bodies and attacked with a vengeance, and it seemed as if the entire population was having a coughing fit—except me. I had nary a sniffle throughout the entire winter.
But by some cruel April Fool’s joke, as the temperatures began to rise and the snow melted away, I developed one whopper of a cough and cold that completely knocked the stuffing out of me, reducing me to a shivering mess cocooned under layers of down and fleece in an effort to stay warm. By the third day of my infected state, I was unable to do much of anything except sleep upright so that I could breathe. Casting aside friends’ well-meaning advice to take oil of oregano, and realizing that a nasty cold had progressed to something more serious, I got a prescription for some heavy-duty drugs that had the effect of knocking me out. I couldn’t do much of anything at all. Nasty little bugs had successfully rendered me non-productive (except for my constant cough which was definitely productive).
With a disposition that is more comfortable being a server than a servee, life at the height of my illness was certainly humbling. For one thing, I couldn’t go to work because who would want to be cared for by a contagious nurse? I wasn’t much use at home either and my family, God bless them, scolded my attempts at self-sufficiency and told me off whenever I refused their help. It took an entire week to recover to the point where I felt decent again. Just in time for Holy Week.
While I was sick, I had some time to read and one of the writings I perused was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s reflection on Jesus washing the feet of His apostles. In his thoughts on Peter’s initial refusal to have his feet washed, I saw myself. When I insisted on doing things for myself even though I was clearly in no position to do so, I was refusing to have my feet washed, rejecting the service of others and telling them I didn’t need them.
Pope Benedict wrote that Peter’s refusal was really a refusal of God’s goodness and grace; it was a denial of the need for spiritual cleansing and pardon. His action was overflowing with pride, ingratitude, and lack of understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach him. Pope Benedict explained that “accepting[ing] the washing of feet means entering into the Lord’s action, sharing in it ourselves, letting ourselves be identified with that action. To receive this washing means to continue with Christ to wash the soiled feet of the world. … Love is received only by loving.”
In order to serve, there has to be someone who needs to be served. The recipient is just as important as the servant, and both are on either side of the same coin called humility. So if we desire to receive God’s grace that He often gives to us through the love of others, then we need to realize that sometimes we have to be on the receiving end of a loving gesture. The grace to receive a person’s kindness is just as necessary as the grace to serve and both are needed in God’s plan of salvation. We can only understand what it means to serve if we know what it means to be served.
Pope Benedict XVI. Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections for the Lenten Season. New York: The Crossroad publishing Company, 1987.
Painting: Washing the Feet by Palma Giovane (1548–1628). Wikimedia.org under a Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.