Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
(from a song by Richard Gillard)
Holy Thursday is very special to me. In a personal way I can relate to Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles. As an RN, my area of expertise is in nursing foot care. The majority of my patients suffer from conditions of the feet that are the direct result of complex medical conditions afflicting their bodies. Some of these feet cause even seasoned medical professionals to turn away. Many colleagues have told me that they don’t have the stomach for this type of nursing.
Feet elicit a very interesting response. When they’re healthy and attractive we show them off; but when they are affected by various infections, deformities, disease processes, we become ashamed and hide them even from our loved ones. There have been so many times that I have heard a new patient say: “Oh nurse, you’ve never seen feet as bad as mine.” Some people I meet will express embarrassment, fear, denial, and hesitation before they reluctantly uncover their feet.
In a way, we are all called to be foot care nurses; not literally, but figuratively. Jesus gave us the commandment to love and serve our neighbour and he plainly showed us how to do it when he knelt at his Apostles’ feet and bathed them. He lowered himself to do the job that was typically assigned to the lowest slave in the household. In his 2006 homily of Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict said that “He kneels before us and carries out for us the service of a slave.”
The picture of Pope Francis kissing the feet of a little boy with AIDS made me catch my breath. While we don’t literally have to kiss feet, his gesture expresses what it means to love and serve our suffering neighbours in Christ. In the homily for his Inaugural Mass, he talked about “protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
Being a servant means attending to the duty of the moment, as the Servant of God, Catherine Doherty liked to say; whatever work God has given us, and wherever He has placed us. Serving our brothers and sisters is as simple as getting the little ones washed, fed, and dressed in the morning; helping an overworked colleague; listening to a friend in need; lovingly preparing a meal for family and friends; volunteering our time and skills. It doesn’t have to be anything on a grand scale but true, humble, Christian service has to be done for the glory of God and love of neighbour.
What about Peter’s reaction when Jesus was about to wash his feet? Peter said to Him, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn 13:8). Peter reacted like some of my patients: with embarrassment, pride, and fear of revealing something that he prefers to keep hidden. It’s as if he’s saying that he doesn’t need Jesus’ mercy and doesn’t want to reveal his filthiness and weakness. Or he may be saying that he doesn’t deserve mercy. In his book, Journey To Easter, Pope Benedict XVI writes about the danger of a devout person, represented by Peter, who “will not accept reality, nor the fact that they too have need of pardon, that their feet too are dirty,” and think that “they have no need of God’s goodness, and of not accepting grace.”
I can identify with Peter. How often will I turn down help because in my prideful self-sufficiency I don’t think I need it? How often will I hesitate to show my true self, preferring to project an unblemished caricature free of dirt, deformities, and imperfections? How often do I say I am not worthy of help? How often do we all say these same things?
Jesus gently rebukes Peter and the rest of us by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with Me” (Jn 13:8). In other words, we have to humble ourselves and admit we need help, humble ourselves and admit that we need to be cleansed, humble ourselves and allow God’s grace to fill us. “To be Christian means allowing our feet to be washed,” writes Pope Benedict XVI. We have to enter “into the Lord’s action, sharing in it ourselves, letting ourselves be identified with that action” (Journey To Easter). In order to wash the feet of others (give love), we must first allow our feet to be washed (receive love). We become Christ for others in two important ways. We are Christ the servant pouring ourselves out for others; and we are the suffering Christ, allowing our brothers and sisters to minister to us.
In his Palm Sunday message of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful and that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who vanquished hatred and death for ever through love” (cf. Rev 5:13).
Richard Gillard, “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant.” Scripture in Song/Maranatha! Music (ASCAP): 1977.