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
"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
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, calluses, 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.
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
Mary Oliver, Evidence, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2009.
Denise Levertov, This Great Unknowing, “Feet”, A New
Directions Publishing Corporation, New York 1999, p. 28
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
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