Jean Vanier on the Meaning of the Washing of Feet

«We Are to Touch People With a Deep Respect,» Says Founder of L’Arche

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LONDON, APRIL 16, 2003 ( Following are excerpts of a meditation offered by Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, Faith and Light Communities, on the ritual of the washing of the feet that Christians will participate in on Holy Thursday.

Vanier addressed the meditation to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion on July 30, 1998.

(The Sunday Times reported that the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will this week be the first Anglican primate in 400 years to wash the feet of his congregation in a symbolic act of humility. Dr. Williams will perform the ceremony on 12 worshippers at the Maundy Thursday evening service in Canterbury Cathedral.)

* * *

Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knowing that his time had come to depart from this world and to return to the Father, having loved his own, he loved them fully, he loved them to the end. And then, in the middle of this rather solemn meal, he got up and started taking off his clothes — the outer garment. You can imagine the surprise of the disciples.

Jesus is always surprising us. He doesn’t like it when we fall into little habits. He shakes us up. Imagine the disciples looking at Jesus and saying, «What’s going on?»

Jesus took off his outer robe. We know in the 19th Chapter of John that Jesus had an outer robe, and under the robe what we call the tunic. The robe must have been pretty dirty, the robe of a poor person. The soldiers cut it into four, and they would use it for cleaning up. But the tunic was particularly beautiful — it had been woven from head to foot. It was one beautiful piece, and so the soldiers drew lots to see who would have it.

So when Jesus takes off the outer garment he is dressed in this flimsy tunic which could go down to the knees or the ankles, sometimes with sleeves and sometimes without. He fills a basin with water, puts a towel around his waist, and starts washing the feet of his disciples.

He comes to Peter to wash Peter’s feet. Peter looks at him, «You? Wash my feet?»

«You cannot understand now, you shall understand later.»

«No! You shall never wash my feet!»

You see, Peter has a sense of hierarchy. There are people at the top and people at the bottom. He is quite prepared to wash the feet of Jesus. That is quite a normal and natural situation. And he would probably like people to wash his feet. That is to say, he has a sense of what all our societies are about — the vision of a pyramid. There are a few people at the top, and an immense number right at the bottom. Those at the bottom are the useless ones — people with disabilities, people maybe who are mentally sick, people out of work, immigrants. So Peter has this sense of a hierarchy.

What would we do if Jesus appeared in our homes and started washing the dishes, washing the floor, and maybe washing the toilets? What would our attitude be? «No! Please go into the sitting room. I will bring you some food. Don’t do that!»

Peter has the same resistance, which maybe all of us have, to Jesus kneeling down at our feet. Maybe a very natural resistance even to have our feet washed. Peter had that resistance. «It is not in the order of things — it is not according to the culture. It shouldn’t be like this!» So the attitude of Peter is a normal and natural reaction. This is the reaction of a loyal person, who in reality has a lot of difficulties with Jesus. (We see this throughout the Gospels.)

What is more surprising is the reaction of Jesus. «If I cannot wash your feet, you shall have no more part with me.»

These are very strong words and very powerful words. «If I cannot wash your feet, you cannot share in the Kingdom. The Kingdom will no longer be part of your heritage. You are no longer my disciple.» In fact, it can be so strong as, «If I cannot wash your feet, there is the door!» These are very strong words. Sometimes it is difficult for us to take them seriously.

Peter panics. «Well then, not only my feet, my head and my hands!» You see, he is a loyal person. But he is panicking. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus was going to put such a stake on the washing of the feet.

«If I cannot show that I want to be your servant, then you are no longer my friend. Because you must understand that message turns everything upside down.» Those who are at the bottom come up to the top.

Jesus washes the feet, and then he puts the bowl of water aside, takes off the towel, and puts on again the outer garment. And he says, «Do you understand what I have done to you? You called me Lord and Master … so I am. So if I have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have done this as an example for you.»

This is the only time that Jesus says, «I have done this as an example.» «So as I have done it to you, you must do it to each other. Verily, verily I say to you, the servant is not greater than the master, and the one who is sent is not greater than the one who sends. Knowing this, if you do it you shall be blessed.» […]

I would like to go a little bit deeper and ask, Why does Jesus wash our feet? And why does he ask us to wash each other’s feet? What is the signification behind it?

I think I discovered that a little bit living in L’Arche. And I said this afternoon that, after having been the leader in our community, I lived in one of our small homes where there were people with very severe disabilities. And I talked to you about the Lucien — the screams of Lucien, who brought up the screams in myself and brought up a lot of inner pain.

We had also welcomed into that house, Eric. Eric had lived for 12 years in the psychiatric hospital. He was blind, he was deaf, he couldn’t walk, and he couldn’t feed himself. He was a man with an immense amount of anguish — a man who wanted to die. In the psychiatric hospital the nurses rather avoided him because he wasn’t gratifying, he could do nothing.

He came to our community, and in him there was this terrible desire to die. He vomited everything that he ate. He was just in immense anguish and immense pain. (I mentioned this afternoon Moses with his pain.) But with Eric it was even more painful. His anguish and his desire to die were evident.

I said that, for us in L’Arche or in Faith and Light, our mission in welcoming Eric is to help him to move from the desire to die to a desire to live. We want him to move from a feeling of being no good to a sense of his value and his worth — from a feeling of guilt to a feeling of trust.

I said this afternoon that the only way that this can come about is through the transforming power of love. Through that love which reveals that you are beautiful; love that understands your pain and your needs; love which celebrates; love which empowers and calls you to be and to be yourself; and a love that forgives.

But for Eric, how will this be revealed to him? He is blind and he is deaf. So the only way of communication with Eric is through our hands. These are the incredible hands that we have been given by Jesus — hands that give security; hands that give peace; hands that manifest love. But hands that also can hurt; can take; can abuse.

I had the privilege of giving Eric his bath every morning. … This was a fragile little man of 16. And through our hands (because it was not just me, but those of our community together) we revealed to him that he is beautiful.

We are to touch people with a deep respect — to touch them with tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, may become vehicles of the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh, that our flesh may become word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value — that they are cherished and loved by God.

Our hands are, in some mysterious way, a source of revelation of communion. Jesus, as he knelt down in front of the feet of his disciples, knows that tomorrow he will be dead. But he wants to h
ave with each disciple a moment. Not just to say goodbye.

Up until now he has just talked with the group. When you talk with a whole group you don’t have that individual contact with each person. Jesus wants that contact with each one of these people. He wants to touch them — to touch their feet; to touch their bodies; to touch them with tenderness and love. Maybe to each one he says a word; maybe looks each one in the eye. There is a moment of communion.

So there is communion through the Body of Christ, where Jesus says «do this in memory of me.» But there is also this communion as he kneels at their feet. And later he will say «I have done this as an example for you. And what I have done to you, you must do one to another.» So this is a gesture of communion, of tenderness.

Jesus touched their bodies — a realization that each one is the Temple of God. «Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Spirit. The Spirit of God is living in you.» I believe that Jesus must have touched these bodies with an immense respect and love and tenderness. He was revealing to them, in a special way, his love for them.

But he also revealed to them that each one of them is beautiful, is chosen, and is loved. To continue this mission, which is his mission, to announce the good news to the poor, freedom to captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and to announce a year of grace and forgiveness.

As you know water, in biblical language, refreshes but cleanses. And when Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples, he is cleansing their feet to show that he wants to cleanse their hearts. That is Jesus. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t condemn; he cleanses. He just wants us to be people of the resurrection — people who stand up; people who believe in ourselves and in our gift; people who believe in the gift of Jesus — so that we can bring this gift to our broken world.

I believe also that as Jesus knelt at the feet of Judas, it must have been a particularly moving time. You see Judas has already the thirty pieces of silver in his pocket; he has already been to the priests of the Temple; he has already decided that he will show the guards where Jesus spends the night. (Because you know, they couldn’t arrest Jesus in broad daylight or there would be a revolt.) They have to find out where he is going to spend the night, and here Judas tells them.

So the feet of Judas (his whole body) must be incredibly tense. This man must have hardened his entire body in front of the incredible tenderness of Jesus kneeling at his feet. Somewhere I wonder whether Jesus looked at him and said, «whatever you do, I want you to know that I love you.» And maybe the next day when Judas commits suicide, and as the noose tightens around his neck, maybe he remembers those eyes of Jesus. And maybe then his own eyes begin to be tearful. He remembers.

So Jesus washes the feet in a sense of cleansing. But also, Jesus is there on his knees as a servant, as a slave — to be there for us. There is something inconceivable that the Lord and master, in this flimsy tunic washing our feet, says to us «I want to serve you; I want to empower you. Because you will receive the Holy Spirit. And you must continue what I have done. You must be filled with the Spirit of God, so that you can go out to the ends of the earth, to bring that love to all people of all cultures.»

So Jesus is the servant. «Jesus who didn’t keep equality with God as something to be held on jealously. But he emptied himself.» He became just a human being. And he humbled himself even more. This is the downward road of Jesus — going down and down and down. And he calls us to walk with him in that downward path.

I know, we all know, how difficult it is to exercise authority and power. Either we are too controlling, and want everything to be in order — preventing people, or not permitting them to be empowered. We try in every way just to hold on to things. Or else we run away — we do nothing. We want to be popular and want everyone to love us, so we don’t make decisions. And we hurt people by making the decision of not making decisions.

Jesus knows that to exercise authority is not easy. I know myself. For many years I was responsible for my community. How quickly I could hurt people by not taking the time to listen to those who are weaker; to those who weren’t of my idea; to those who maybe had a different vision; to those who could criticize things which were really criticizable in me or in things that I had done. I saw a lot of fear in me. It is not easy to exercise authority. It is not easy to be parents — to help children to gradually come to freedom, and not to be there just to control them. Instead to help each one to become themselves.

Everyone one of us here, we exercise power in some way — as parents, teachers, priests, bishops. And we know that it is not easy servant leadership — to really give ourselves to others; to help each one to rise up; to know when to make decisions. It is difficult. We need that power of the Holy Spirit, because without that power of the Spirit we will never be able to exercise authority as Jesus exercises it.

And Jesus, as he kneels at our feet, is saying, «I want you to exercise your authority in love.» As a good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. Exercise authority with tenderness and love. Exercise authority in truth and in forgiveness.

So when Jesus is at our feet there is something unacceptable. But he is teaching us. He is teaching us how he wants us to exercise authority — not from the top of the pedestal, but close to people. Confirm them; call them forth; empower them; help them to grow to freedom in truth.

Then Jesus, washing the feet of the disciples is saying something else. You see, Jesus came to transform the pyramid into a body. The pyramid, we know what it is. Some few have power and privileges and wealth. And at the bottom is the immense number of the poor and the broken. And Jesus wanted to transform this into a Body.

That is why Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians, talks about the Church as Body. Where every person is different, and everyone is important. Where the eye is different to the foot and the eye is different to the ear and so on. And he goes on to say that those parts of the body which are the least presentable, the weakest, are necessary to the body and should be honored. I believe Paul is saying something about people with disabilities — they are necessary to the body and should be honored.

And Jesus is saying something else. He wants us to discover the Church as Body where each one is important — where leadership is important, because the body needs the element of the leadership. But we are all together as brothers and sisters in the same Body. That we are one together in the Body which is inspired, motivated and inhabited by the Spirit of God.

Jesus is saying also something important about the relationship between the master and the slave. He is reminding us that henceforth we must look downward. Because God is hidden in the weak, and the poor, and the disabled. God is in the Body. He is saying, «be attentive to the littlest, to the weakest, to the poorest, to those who are the most broken; for I am living there.»

Jesus insists and says we are called to wash each other’s feet. Obviously this is symbolic. Jesus is saying that we must be, all of us together, must be servants of one and other — serving each other, empowering each other. We are not entering into that competitive game of ‘I know more than you’ or ‘My culture is better than your culture.’ But we are there to serve each other, to love each other.

So, the washing of the feet is symbolic. It is something about service; something about communion; something about mutual forgiveness, togetherness, and oneness. But at the same time Jesus insists so much about the washing of the feet, about touching the body, that I believe that this symbol is also sacrament. It is something very special.
It is not just to talk with people, but to recognize that their body is the Temple of God. Recognize that the Spirit of God is living in them. Recognize that their body is precious. I believe that Jesus insists on the washing of feet because our bodies are precious, Temples of the Spirit.

We want to be in communion — one with another. We love each other. We may have divergences in vision, divergences in theological questions. This is normal. We come from cultures and backgrounds that are very different. Each one of us, we have our character traits. We have the wound in us. We have our fragility and our need to prove that «I am better than you.»

So Jesus is saying something about communion — how to be with each other with words that our not flowing from our woundedness, our darkness, and our need for power and superiority, but from a desire for oneness. And oneness is not exclusion of difference. Oneness is not fusion. St. Paul says we are all different. It is the recognition of difference. But that doesn’t mean to say that we crush difference.

So we are called to be in communion, to forgive each other, to serve each other, and to discover that together we are all called to walk the downward path.

We are all called to be small. «The camel cannot go through the eye of the needle.» But we who carry authority and power, in some way we are called to be like little children. And we are called to serve each other in rectitude and in truth as Jesus. And as we become small, then maybe we can go through the eye of the needle.

And so this evening, that is what we are going to do. We do so in a witness of our desire to follow the humble Jesus, the broken Jesus, and the weeping Jesus — the Jesus who became little and humbled himself even more. In some way we want to follow Jesus on that downward path. This is the path which, as we go down, then with him we rise again to be a sign of resurrection in our world.

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