“A Lesson for Christian Living, or an Empty Ritual?  What It Means to Wash Feet”

Homily for Holy Thursday
March 28, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral


If you knew you were going to die tomorrow and you could leave one instruction by which your friends would remember you, what would that instruction be?  Tonight tells us the answer to that question for Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Final Commandment

Just moments ago we heard Our Lord give this commandment immediately after washing his disciples feet at that Last Supper he shared with them the night before he died: “as I have done for you, you should also do.”  This is a command so central to his teaching that he repeats it over and over, stating it in different ways.  Elsewhere during this final discourse to his disciples he tells them, “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), and also, in reference to what he was about to do for them, “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13).  And then, of course, there is his observation on the good shepherd, to whom he calls his apostles to associate themselves: “a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11).

All of these different ways of giving this instruction to his friends is summed up in that final command he gave to them in offering the bread and wine at the Last Supper, which we hear at every Mass: “Do this in memory of me.”  What we hear about tonight, though, is even more dramatic: he models his instruction to them in action.  The next day he would submit to the greatest humility imaginable: allowing himself, though innocent, to suffer execution as the lowliest of criminals.  He models that same humility here, lowering himself to perform the service of a slave by washing his friends’ feet, he who is their Master.

This was truly revolutionary for the world at the time.  It did, indeed, take the apostles some time for this message to sink in.  The Gospels are not hesitant to display in particular Peter’s resistance: he is horrified of crucifixion, he does not want that for his Lord much less for himself.  And yet, in the end, he will learn the lesson to obey this commandment and do as his Master had done for him, imitating him all the way to the manner in which he would be put to death.

Heedless of the Shame

We should not, though, be too harsh in our judgment of the apostles for their resistance to the prospect of crucifixion.  It was truly a cause of great shame in the ancient Roman world.  In fact, so much so, that for several centuries in Christian art the Church would not depict Christ crucified on the cross.  It was considered too much of a scandal in the culture of the time, and it was feared that it would drive people away from faith in Christ rather than attract them.  It was only after a Christian culture began to transform the ancient Greco-Roman world that the Church began to depict Christ hanging on the cross. 

Rather than shake our heads in condescending disbelief at the fear and lack of faith of those first followers of Jesus, then, we should instead take a look at ourselves.  Are we, in our own way, too ashamed to follow our Lord’s command lest we be judged negatively by the cultural authorities of our own time?  The call of the Christian disciple is to repeat in his or her own life the death of the Lord, but always in keeping with the individual’s own vocation and state in life.  Few are called to the most glorious witness of the martyrdom of blood, but all are called to some sort of death to self.

We do well, then, to heed the words of St. Augustine, who exhorts us: “The death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory.  In taking upon himself the death that he found in us, he has most faithfully promised to give us life in him, such as we cannot have of ourselves.”[1]  We are the ones who can too easily cower in fear and shame from boldly living as an identifiable disciple of Jesus Christ.  The times in which we live can bring criticism and opprobrium, true, but not a condemnation to literal crucifixion.  But even criticism and opprobrium can seem too intimidating, especially since here in the West we have not had to suffer physical violence for the faith that our brothers and sisters have in other parts of the world.  We need, then, to develop the virtue that makes us capable of such fidelity, which is heedless of the shame of carrying the cross after our Lord.  And that process begins with humility.  That is the first step, as modeled by our Lord in that Last Supper he shared with his closest friends.

Deeper Meaning of the Ritual

In a few moments we will reenact this ritualistically as we do every year on Holy Thursday.  But far from some sort of sentimental gesture or folkloric custom, it is meant to teach us the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  To shed light on what this means I would turn to an interview given recently by Bishop Erik Varden of – of all places – Trondheim, Norway.  This may seem like a far-flung place of little to no importance for the global Catholic family, but much wisdom is to be gleaned in what he shares in this interview.

Among other things, he cites a comment made by an Italian priest of the first half of the last century, Primo Mazzolari, known for his pacifism and love of the poor, that came from a letter Fr. Mazzolari had received from someone who, as Bishop Varden explains, was “far from the Church.”  The man stated in his letter: “I am tempted to shout in your ears: But do you understand what you are doing?  Perhaps you’ve never really understood it: this action (God kneeling down, as a servant, before his creature) turns absolutely everything upside down, and you turn it into a harmless ritual?”[2]

A harmless ritual.  How easily we can do this.  How easily we can see it as a way of including everyone in a special moment of the Church’s liturgy.  Yes, the Church is universal, inclusive of everyone who seeks to follow the way of Christ, but sometimes I think we can make inclusion almost our object of worship rather than God.  Do we really recognize what God has done here?  Does it really make a difference in our lives?  As the good bishop goes on to say: “The real criterion of inclusion is not whether the community of which I feel a part is having its particular feet washed, but this: Do I realize the extent to which Christ has humbled himself for my sake?  And do I live according to Christ’s example?”[3]


That is the criterion for living as a Christian, regardless of the cost and heedless of the shame.  Holy Thursday reminds us that Our Lord can give us this command because he went there himself first, modeling this humble discipleship for us.  May our re-enactment of this example of this great reversal Our Lord gives us, turning everything upside down, not be for us an empty ritual but an action which turns everything in our lives toward the path that leads to greater fidelity to Jesus Christ and love for him made visible in our love for the least of his brothers and sisters.  May God grant us this grace.  Amen.

[1] Liturgy of the Hours, Monday of Holy Week, Office of Readings, Second Reading.

[2] Entering into Holy Week – What We Need Now (substack.com)

[3] ibid.