Across the ocean in the Eternal City, the Bishop of Rome, known to us for only a short time now as Francis, celebrated this Holy Thursday Mass not in the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica but in a rather ignominious prison which houses young men and women who are there because they have been found guilty of crimes. In the midst of this simple prison Mass Francis knelt down and washed the feet of 12 young women and men who are deemed unsafe to be allowed to live freely among their fellow citizens. Of the nearly 50 young prisoners, only 8 are Italian. The other inmates are Muslim or profess no faith. Therefore, Francis washed the feet of non-Christians, and even the feet of those who follow the widely-despised religion of the Prophet Muhammad.
Publicly many pundits and Vatican-watchers expressed awe and admiration for the Pope’s gesture. But we would be naïve to think that everyone approves of this image of the Holy Father, kneeling to hold and wash and kiss the feet of prisoners, criminals, non-Christians and Muslims. Certainly there are those who would think this act to be “unseemly” for the Pope. There are those who would be quick to say that those prisoners; those Muslims; those who “different” and “other” don’t deserve to be seated with the Supreme Pontiff kneeling at their feet. After all, within the diocese of Rome there must exist somewhere a parish youth group known for its good works, or perhaps an exemplary boy scout or girl scout troop that would be willing participants in a papal footwashing. Wouldn’t this be more appropriate? More uplifting?
This is exactly the sentiment – the judgment – that Jesus rejects in his actions the night before he died when HE knelt to wash to feet of his 12 apostles. This gesture – Jesus washing feet – recapitulates and summarizes everything that Jesus said and did during the three years of his ministry. His teachings and his actions always pointed to the great message of total self-gift and unconditional love. In this singular action—in washing his disciples’ feet—Jesus shows, rather than tells.
We recall Ignatius Loyola’s insight that “love is more readily shown by deeds than through words;” And we are reminded of St. Francis of Assisi, who is purported to say: “Preach always; when necessary, use words.” Jesus, the Rabbi, the teacher, dramatizes his core message by breaking bread and washing feet—all in service to his apostles—unworthy though they were; already known to Jesus as the betrayers and deserters they would soon become.
They must have been shocked: Washing feet is the work and duty of a slave who welcomes his master’s visiting dignitary (cf. Jim Martin, SJ; https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/JamesMartinSJ?fref=ts). Jesus, the wise man, the Rabbi, the teacher, the miracle worker, assumes the posture of a slave and commits an act of abasement (cf. Raymond Brown). He transgresses conventional boundaries and turns societal norms on their head. He recasts religion and faith as a relationship that God freely initiates, rather a game of earning up points that demonstrates our value and worthiness. He lays aside his outer robe, just as he will lay down his life for his own—He prefigures the act of total self-gift that is soon to come.
In the words of Pope Francis, “Jesus gives Himself totally, He keeps nothing for Himself, not even His life. At the Last Supper, with His friends, He shares the bread and distributes the chalice for us. The Son of God is offered to us, He consigns His Body and his Blood into our hands to be with us always, to dwell among us.” Do you believe that this gift is yours, too? Or, like Peter, are you too preoccupied with your own sins, too caught up in your need to build a case for yourself, and justify yourself that you can’t receive this gift of love? Are you too proud to receive love that is unmerited, unconditional, unexpected, unearned? Do you, contrary to the Gospel, believe in a religion of merits and demerits, in which, through our good works, we strain our efforts and summon God to appear? Or are you willing to accept the freely given gift?
In an account published in the media a few days ago, we hear about the reactions of those at the prison upon learning that Francis would come to break bread and wash feet. They, too, have something to teach us. Listen to this account: “A joyful atmosphere of expectation pervades the prison. Such an important visit had certainly not been in the cards. Above all, there had been no expectation of so suddenly touching the heart of the Pope whom they do not yet know. ‘The young people’s enthusiasm’, the staff told us, ‘must be linked to the very fact that they feel they will be playing the lead on a historic day. Moreover, this is exactly what Pope Francis wanted. He expressly asked us to make sure that there were no other young people here. He wants to be certain that they know he is coming solely for them, because he loves them, he carries them in his heart and considers them important, very important.’
That first Holy Thursday – 2000 years ago – in an upper room – Jesus broke bread and washed feet. He came for unworthy disciples and fickle friends. With both actions he revealed the face of God and the unbridled LOVE of His Father. Through it all, He showed us rather than told us. And Jesus’ actions responded to Philip who asked him to “show us the Father.” Jesus told Philip: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Before Pope Francis arrived at the prison, one of the young people had already caught the depth of the Mystery that was about to happen. Speaking to a Caritas worker, he said – “At last I shall get to meet someone who says he is my father!”
This evening Jesus comes for us, because He loves us, and He wants to show us the Father’s love. He invites us: “let go of hurt and injury, lay aside anxiety and fear, and embrace with joy and enthusiasm this gift; this moment; this love.” He bows down to wash our feet, and he is present as we break the bread. Jesus bids each of us to be washed and welcomed and fed. Not because we deserve it.
Rather, Jesus echoes one of my colleagues at Christ the King, our Associate Principal, who is fond of telling our students, in good times and bad: “I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” So no matter where your feet have been, or what inferior food you have been consuming, tonight, simply receive; Receive this act of perfect love; Powerless though you are to earn it. And then, realizing that what He has done for you, listen as He bids you to go, and do likewise for others. For herein lies TRUE power: Because we are fed and washed, we can continue to break bread and to wash feet, we are empowered to love as He loves; and give as He gives so that like Jesus we, too, might reveal the love of God the Father.
Holy Thursday Homily (2013)
by Fr. Chris J. Devron, SJ
President of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep.
5088 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60644