The Fourth Gospel Chapter 13
Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P.
213th Edition, April 2017
Happy April Fool’s Day! Today is a good reminder not to be foolish and to use our time well. We have one week before Holy Week. Mary Oliver’s brief poem,
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two Housed as they are in the same body. (1)
Describes well the week that we are approaching. The Holy Week readings hold dramatic celebrations of life and love. They also remind us of the profound pain and suffering of Jesus. Palm Sunday starts our week. The Gospel for the Procession of Palms on Palm Sunday follows the liturgical three-year cycle. In other words, Year A, the year we are currently celebrating, is the year when Matthew’s Gospel is proclaimed. Matthew’s Gospel highlights Jesus’ royalty. Jesus is of the House of David: the House of Kings. Matthew often alludes to the First Testament (Old Testament) to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish Messianic prophecies. In fact, we will hear a reference to this connection in the Gospel during the Procession. “This came about to fulfill what was said through the prophets…”.
The liturgy during Holy Week has a unique structure. It has been developed over many years. Palm Sunday with its Procession of the Palms and the reading of the Gospel before Mass alerts us to the changes. The last three days of Holy Week, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter/Easter Sunday, are identified as the Triduum. The Triduum tradition began in the third century about 215 C.E. It expanded into a “Holy Week” in the sixth century. However, the celebration of the Holy Week liturgies was inconsistent especially during the Middle Ages. Holy Week, as we know it today, was reinstated by Pope Pius XII in 1955. The Second Vatican Council continued to emphasize the importance of Holy Week. The Council also stressed the importance of lay involvement in the liturgies during this week.
Before we discuss the events of Holy Thursday, let’s ask ourselves a question. If we knew it was the night before we were going to die, how would we choose to spend that evening? Would we invite our family and best friends for a special dinner? Would we give each person a memento: a piece of jewelry, a photograph, a ring? Would we tell good stories of past events or caution those present about their future decisions? What mood would we want to set for this occasion? It is not hard to identify the theme of the Holy Thursday dinner. “Love one another as I have loved you.” God’s love drives the liturgy this day. Most of us will attend Mass in our parish churches. No matter which cycle of the year we are celebrating, Cycle A, B, or C, the readings for this day remain the same. We will hear the first reading from Exodus: the Passover. The second reading will be from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s Letter is the first written account of the Last Supper. In his letter we hear the familiar words that are used during our Eucharistic celebrations. “This is my body….” Yet, the Gospel on this day is always from John’s Gospel: the washing of the feet. The words that are used at the consecration during Mass are not spoken in John’s Gospel. Perhaps John’s description of the washing of the feet could be entitled, “If you talk the talk you must walk the walk.”
Since this is John’s Gospel, Jesus is not portrayed as a victim. The Gospel begins with “Jesus knew his hour had come.” He knew who had sent him and to whom he was going. He was fully aware of what was before him. Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper mirrored his life. His actions were not those of a master redeeming unworthy slaves. Jesus’ beloved community is a community of friends. No one is greater than another. “If I your master do this, then you are to do this to one another.” It is a round table community of friendship: a friendship that willingly serves one another out of love. The unconditional love that Jesus lived throughout his life was made real once again through his actions. Even close to his death nothing, not even betrayal, could detour his love. He was aware that “not all were clean,” yet Jesus desired Judas to be part of the foot-washed community.
During the Holy Thursday service we too will have a chance to wash one another’s feet. Other than nurses, care givers and podiatrists, washing another adult person’s feet is a fairly unusual experience. Bending over, kneeling down in front of another person, carefully lifting one foot at a time, pouring water and gently drying each foot is a meditation. In spite of our position in life, when we kneel before a person there is an equalizing effect. As we do this prayerfully in memory of Jesus it can transform our hearts and deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple. Feet symbolize many aspects of our lives. They are symbols of the choices we have made, the roads we have taken that have led us to and away from God. Denise Levertov has a poem that describes an eighty-plus year old woman’s journey. “We begin our lives with such small, such plump and perfect infant feet, slivers of pink pearl for toenails, it’s laughable to think of their ever sustaining the whole weight of the body.” (2) Baby feet are so precious. Older feet often have bunions, callouses, broken nails: feet that show the stress of carrying the weight of our decisions.
The Holy Thursday liturgy is unique. We know the ritual well. We know what it feels like to have our feet washed by one who loves us. Foot washing can bring about forgiveness in families, smooth out differences among siblings and deepen our love for one another. All without words. It can also awaken in us an awareness of our connection with people whose names we do not know. Allowing a stranger to wash and dry our feet can feel intimate because “feet” are not usually the center of focus. Perhaps that is why this ritual is so important. For a few moments, but hopefully for a lifetime, the foot washing ritual might change the way we view the world. It might open our hearts to compassion so that all people’s joys and sorrows, hopes and fears become our concerns. Foot washing is hopefully experienced as bread broken and blood poured out.
No wonder the ministers give advanced notice of this ritual. The preparation for the ritual is both physical and spiritual. Physically, we can wash our feet and choose shoes that are easily slipped into. Spiritually, we can read the Gospel ahead of time and ponder its meaning in our lives. We can pray for one another that our eyes will be opened and our minds understand what Jesus is asking of us. His question to his disciples is also the question he puts before us on Holy Thursday: “Do you understand what I have done to you?” Hopefully by reading this passage every year, and pondering and practicing the foot washing ritual, we will find ourselves not like Peter. Rather, we will come to understand it’s about being the Body of Christ now and servicing the Body of Christ now.
- Mary Oliver, Evidence, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2009. p.13.
- Denise Levertov, This Great Unknowing, “Feet”, A New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York 1999, p. 28
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article. “Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “firstname.lastname@example.org.” If you would like to support this ministry, please send your contributions to Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, c/o Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P., 638 36th Street, Richmond, CA 94805. Thank you.