Today’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus. One dramatic highlight of the Mass is the reenactment of something that happened before the last supper—Jesus washed the feet of His apostles.
I was in Grade 3 when I first heard the story narrated by our religion teacher. I remember interrupting her before she could finish the story. I asked: “Why did Jesus wash the feet of His apostles? Aren’t we supposed to wash our hands before eating, not our feet?” My classmates snickered and even laughed.
In my young mind, I thought it was a sensible question. Since I associated washing of hands as a prerequisite to a meal, I thought the apostles should have washed their hands, not their feet. Unless they were planning to use their feet for eating.
I had read many commentaries about this strange ritual that Jesus performed. Almost all of these explained that the washing of the feet was Jesus’s way of showing His apostles the kind of love He had for them and the world. It was a love expressed in humble service and sacrifice. That is why the washing of the feet was the prelude to the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s total offering of Himself on the cross.
As a priest, I prefer to see the washing of the feet as the symbolic beginning of a long journey that the apostles would undertake. The apostles, instituted by Jesus as the first priests, received from Him a new way of self-understanding. It was as though Jesus was telling them:
“Many times in the past, you were fugitives, always running from past mistakes, from situations and people you couldn’t accept, from failures, sins, guilt, doubts and anxieties.
“By washing your feet, you no longer have to look at yourself as escape artists, but as men sent on a pilgrimage of faith and love. You do not need to ask which way to go. I am the Way. You do not need to ask what to believe in: I am the Truth. You do not need to fear if your journey will end in death. It will end in abundant life because I am the Life.”
God gave us feet so we can move like pilgrims towards what is really true, good, and beautiful. But we, priests or not, frequently use our feet to wander to cheap substitutes. We rush to places looking for things that gratify us for a while, but leave us empty and guilty afterwards. Our life becomes a perpetual flight from one prison to another.
Our feet always bring us where our heart is. I remember the story of one explorer who succeeded in reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. When he finally came back and was asked how he achieved such an almost impossible goal, he replied: “My heart got there first, my feet just followed.”
The government-imposed lockdowns due to the pandemic drastically limited our movements. But this can be a big opportunity for a big shake-up in our life. We who have been always running away from fear, or running towards pleasure, will finally have the time to keep still, and focus our attention on what truly matters in our life. As one friend wrote:
“Before the pandemic, I was caught up in a vicious cycle. Nothing I did gave me any long-lasting satisfaction or sense of purpose. The pleasures I sought often led to self-loathing, addiction, and an endless search for the next ‘fix.’ Forced to stay at home, I learned to ask myself during this pandemic: ‘Why am I wasting my precious life on things that have no eternal value?'”
Where your heart is, your feet follow. Now that our restless feet are restrained, it’s time to allow our heart to wander freely into the deeper realms of meaning and value, rebuilding our life and relationships on a more lasting foundation. Like the apostles, let us be pilgrims, not fugitives.