The Sunday Project

Whose Feet Will You Wash?

Holy Thursday |

By Patrick Weston
feet in water
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First Reading
Ex 12:1-8, 11-14

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall stand at the head of your calendar; you shall reckon it the first month of the year. Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household. If a family is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one and shall share in the lamb in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it. The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish. You may take it from either the sheep or the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight. They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

“This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD. For on this same night I will go through Egypt, striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD! But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.

“This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”

Second Reading
1 Cor 11:23-26

Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Gospel Reading
Jn 13:1-15

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

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Growing up, we didn’t go to church much in the evening. My family was a pretty solid 10:30am crew. As a result, there’s something special about the few days a year we would go to mass in the evening. Holy Thursday has always been one of my favorite days.

I’ve always considered myself more of a Catholic driven by experience, not a theological one. I’m very much guided by the physical act of going to mass, the repetition of standing and sitting and singing together, and hearing readings and homilies. Holy Week is different. It is full of practices that break the norms of mass: using palm branches as a mass prop, venerating the Cross on Good Friday, and long Gospel readings where the parishioners participate. My favorite though is also what many would consider to be the weirdest: the washing of feet.

The Mass is full of order and sanctity. It can almost feel stuffy at times. Having people expose their bare feet and have them washed is the complete opposite of the usual formality. As a result, I absolutely love it.

I particularly came to love the tradition when I was attending mass at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University when I was an undergraduate. Rather than my home parish’s practice of washing the feet of a few people from a signed up list, my college parish let everyone participate. It was a free for all — groups of friends and strangers cycling through the washing process. The connection felt in the process of our shared humanity was powerful, and it was fun.

While the act of washing feet is fun, I also love the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. It sums up his life’s mission well. In it, he humbles himself and serves his disciples. It was unusual in those times for a master to clean the feet of their servants, but Jesus flips the power structure like He always does. We’re told to replicate this act of service:

You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’  and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, 
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, 
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.

I was reminded of serving others while I binged the British show It’s a Sin this week with my boyfriend. The show follows a queer group of friends in London during the height of the AIDS pandemic. Without spoiling too much, a young woman named Jill in the friend group pitches in and helps her friends out. She performs weekly grocery shopping and cooking for a friend homebound by AIDS complications, she volunteers for a toll-free call line and lies down in a street to protest political inaction, and she puts up with the unsupportive family of another friend. While watching, I couldn’t help but think she became Jesus on earth.

While her role was fictionalized and her acts of service grand, it inspired me. We can, and should, do more to help those around us. Our contributions can be small, like remembering to wear a mask when in public to protect the vulnerable, or they can be large. 

When you celebrate Holy Thursday today and encounter the washing of feet, I hope you feel inspired by Jesus’ actions. As Pope Francis said, "I want the Church to go out into the streets." Let’s get messy and get out in the world to do some good.