“Unless I wash you. . . "


What a wealth of meanings springs from this simple phrase. Holy Thursday is a day to think about leadership and about service. It is the day we celebrate the institution of the Priesthood, the body dedicated completely to the service of God's people.

It is interesting that when Jesus was about to go through His passion, he saw what today is called "a teachable moment." The apostles were all gathered for the Last Supper, although they did not know it at the time. When supper had come to an end, Jesus takes off his outer garments and assumes the character of a slave, a servant of no meaning to the apostles. Peter objects to this and Jesus tells him, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me."

Notice the phrase was not, "Unless you serve me." It is , "Unless I wash you." And this single phrase seems so replete with meaning that one does well to spend a moment and unpack it a little. The first and most obvious meaning, I shall return to in a moment as the bulk of this post. But hidden here is the knowledge of the death He would suffer and Jesus spoke in the fullness of the revelation of that death. "Unless I wash you," certainly refers to the present situation of washing the apostle's feet, but it refers also to the shedding of His blood--that precious blood poured out as a gift and a libation to all of humanity. When we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we become Jesus, we are transfigured as He was upon Mt. Hermon where Mark tells us, "And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them" (Mk 9:3). So too is the believer transfigured with not only clothing becoming radiant, although that clothing is Christ Himself, but also the person--who is permeated through by Jesus Christ. As John says, this is the inheritance of all the saints: And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7:14). There is no white without the crimson of His Blood; there is no share in His inheritance that does not accept His ultimate service to all on the cross. There is no other name by which people are saved and this salvation comes at the cost of accepting that He must wash us clean.

That is only part of the point of this weighted phrase. More immediately, Jesus was showing the apostles and all Christians the meaning of Christian life. He washes the feet of the Apostles, the leader stoops down to service. But no, Jesus tells us that it is the duty of the leaders to be servants to the people of God. Peter, who will become the head of the Church is told with all the others, I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.

The person who would be with Jesus and who would lead others to Jesus must be willing to serve. We have seen that time and time again through history--the great and exalted humble themselves to become the servants of the most needy. St. Margaret of Scotland, Queen and servant to the Poor. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, princess and servant to the poor. These people of high standing, abandoned their thrones and led the people they served through the example of their service. In the Carmelite rule, the Superior of a group of monks or friars is called upon to be the servant of all of the monks. He directs the community, but much of his direction comes through his example of service. he becomes a teacher by virtue of the service he gives to the brother monks.

Every Christian is called to this same servant leadership. Whether a person holds an exalted position in the community or is simply one of the many, each one is called to serve neighbors, enemies, and friends. Each person is called to sacrifice--for family first if the married vocation calls for it, and then for all the rest of the community. The leadership a Christian shows is the leadership of washing feet. As with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the leadership of her community rested upon leading all the others in service to the poor and to each other.

Servant leadership is an important part of the baptismal call of all Christians. Priests demonstrate this through unstinting service and through the sacrifices they make in the paths of their lives. As they serve God's people giving bread and wine, the Body and Blood, at the banquet of the Eucharist, their example should inspire us to serve others with food, water, clothing, shelter, compassion, and deep and abiding love. As priests serve selflessly, they teach service to one another. But the example of the priest is ultimately the example of the Priest, the single High Priest who presides in Heaven over every service offered on Earth. He is the exemplar of service, giving first His life and then His eternity in service to those who do not appreciate it.

And that is another aspect of service--very often it will not be embraced. The servant will be cast out, rejected, and cut off. The person who serves will be seen as passive, ineffective, not meaningful in a dog-eat-dog society. Quiet service vanishes in the face of self-service. I recall that Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Princess Diana both died at about the same time, and for much of the time the death of the Saint was eclipsed by the Death of the Princess. I recall even seeing posters that linked these two women, and while I have nothing against Princess Diana, who did do much to serve others, she never rose to the levels of service that Mother Teresa showed throughout her life.

Service is the keynote of the Christian message, and it may be one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life to internalize. Most people do not really want to serve; it is far easier to relax and be served. Few really rejoice in the opportunity to serve unless that opportunity comes with the possibility of being noticed. Most service is a weak and paltry thing outside of the shining spotlight of fame. And yet, that is the lot of the Christian. Each person must consent to be served by our great Teacher, Leader, and High Priest, and then follow the example He laid down for us and serve one another. Our service is not so much to God, although God counts it in our favor, but it is to God's people. The service God has assigned to the Christian is bearing truth, love, and the knowledge of the ways of God to all of His people.

He showed us how to do this when he washed the feet of the apostles in the moments before he was to be taken away forever. Pause for a moment and consider--Jesus did not merely demonstrate service to the Apostles, He demonstrated composure, serenity, assurance. He was in the moments before the long glory of the Passion and resurrection. His mind must have been filled with what was before Him, and yet, rather than impatience, he showed the apostles kindness, loving them at the very end in ways that would become meaningful only after the events of the coming days. Jesus was full of the torment that would surface in the Garden, and He spent His time washing feet rather than wringing hands. His service was His joy, His delight in the moment with the company of His friends. And so all service stems from this central joy. For when anyone does as Christ has instructed, that person is among the friendship of the apostles. God serves each person to give each person the strength to serve others. And so with Peter one might be inclined to excess: “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” But Jesus will not rebuke the enthusiasm--merely reassure--you are already clean. Jesus will give the strength and the serenity for service and He will be helping those whom we think we help.

All this so that one day we might say with our brother and teacher Paul:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 2 Cor 4:5.

May it be so for all who follow Jesus.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 13, 2006 8:38 AM.

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