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.”John 13:12-15
In my early years of religious life, Holy Thursday was among the most difficult of the year’s liturgical celebrations for me. This was not especially because it was a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist but rather because of its highly clerical overtones. It was, at that time, considered, it seemed even more significantly in the church, a celebration of the “institution of the priesthood,” a highly suspect theological construction. Perhaps on no other feast was the distinction more pronounced between the Roman Catholic understanding of the day and that of other Christians. In most other Christian traditions the day was known as “Maundy Thursday,” as a remembrance of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet. At the heart of that perspective is the act of Jesus, which he clearly tells us is the mark of discipleship and the words of John’s gospel: “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)
Pope Francis has prayed that the Church become free of clericalism and has further said that the root cause of the crisis of sexual abuse, which is really a crisis of the abuse of power, is the result of a pernicious kind of clericalism. The very fact that the focus of Maundy Thursday turned from the summons to become the most base of servants to a “celebration” of a privileged class perhaps carries a profound lesson for all of us.
Long before Friedrich Nietzsche identified the significant place of “the will to power” in our human situation, Jesus taught us, at every turn, to counter its movements in our own lives. Jesus is fully aware of our desire as human beings to “be somebody” significant. In the best of us there resides this often hidden impulse to be important and powerful, to have others “look up” to us. The powerful symbolism of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is that, at that moment, they are “looking down” on him. He is enacting his teaching that it is the lowly that God raises up, that it is the last who are first in the kingdom.
As a beginning teacher, nothing made me more angry than a student who failed to “respect” me. I thought that having become the teacher, I was entitled to respect just by virtue of my position. When respect was not shown to me, I far too seldom reflected on the fact that the respect of another for me is a return, in kind, of the respect I show to him or her, in this case by giving to the student all that my call as teacher required of me. In time I began to learn, in practice, the truth of Jesus’ teaching. The more I served the students in the way I was called to, the more they respected me.
In our lack of true faith and understanding of Jesus’ teaching, we look for respect based on our attaining positions of power. This is the scourge of what Pope Francis calls clericalism, and it is not confined to the ordained priesthood. Any human structure defined by hierarchy will inevitably become abusive. As the philosopher Louis Lavelle has pointed out, there is no position of influence that does not carry with it many dangers. The more I loved my students and spent myself in their regard, the more they respected me and the more fulfillment I experienced in my work. When I was lazy, unprepared, self-centered, and ungenerous, then I inevitably experienced, justly, a lack of respect in return. Any situation requires leadership and structure, but Jesus reminds us that the more we are called to such a position the more we must give of ourselves, which means emptying ourselves into the work and service the position requires of us. We must be wary of our influence, always challenging ourselves about our own motives for being in such a situation.
We in the Roman Catholic tradition find ourselves, on this Holy Thursday, in a moment of crisis for our church, and so for our tradition itself. Yes, it is clearly a crisis for the hierarchical church and the ordained priesthood, but it is as well a crisis for us all. We who have been formed and deformed by our tradition’s hierarchical culture must, at this time, deeply and humbly examine our lifelong motivations. In what ways do the positions of leadership, for example, that we find ourselves in bring with them elements of entitlement? To what degree do we spend our time caring for and maintaining the structures rather than caring first for persons? Do those we are called to serve see us on our knees and washing their feet, or do they see us as masters and authorities, sometimes apparently arbitrary ones? Do we, all protestations to the contrary, actually seek power over our situations rather than emptying ourselves in service to them?
Power and elitism are constant temptations for human beings. As the gospel makes clear, these are so strong that we are always to practice servanthood. This is not merely a question for church institutions, but for human culture as a whole. Those of us who live at a certain level of economic comfort and security are immersed in a consciousness by which those who are seen as less than us do those tasks that are too menial for us. We even call those who clean our rooms, or wait on us at table, or work “behind the counter” as members of the “service sector.” They are designated, and most often treated, as slaves or servants. To have become successful in our culture means that those who are less successful, as we measure it, are our servants. It is so easy to begin to treat other persons, who “work for us,” as our slaves.
That others work for us is a sign of accomplishment in our culture. Because of this, we begin to misidentify ourselves in the most vile of ways. We begin to see ourselves as elite or superior. It becomes very easy then, in at best subtle ways, to abuse those who are less than us, who are there “for us.” For years I have wrestled with why there are in so many members of our own religious community such deep, while often suppressed, feelings of resentment and rage. However my recent experiences in leadership have begun to illuminate this question. The hierarchical structure of religious life, and for that matter life in the church at large, creates a form of false consciousness in leaders and followers alike. On the one hand, the leaders suffer the temptation to begin to believe that they know better. That somehow there is a kind of “divine right,” (in religious circles often called “the grace of office”) that gives them the right, and responsibility as they see it, to make wise decisions in others’ regard. On the other hand, the same structure begins to create in the followers a form of infantilization in which they begin to forsake their own responsibility in favor of conforming to the will of the authority. It is a basic truism, however, that if we give over our self-responsibility to another, we shall come to resent them for that.
I wonder, if we were to truly heed today’s gospel from John, if it would not be more appropriate, as Jesus commands, for us to wash each other’s feet during tonight’s liturgy. When the “special person” does the washing, it seems that the message becomes clouded if not contorted. The very act of humility becomes a ratification of the specialness of the one doing it. Might it be quite a different “sacramental symbol” if we were all on our knees washing each other’s feet. Might that not express the true brotherhood and sisterhood that we are in Christ, the communion that we share as members of the one body .
The poet James Wright offers us a glimpse of Judas in a very different light, a light in which we might all hope to see ourselves. As he is preparing to kill himself, Judas sees a man being beaten by a gang. He runs to help the man and, as he does so, he forgets “my name, my number, how my day began . . . how I alone bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.” Each of us shares the common life of being both sinner and beloved of God. There are no castes, or classes, or privileged positions among us. To follow the calls that beckon us to give all we have for the others, is to forget our sins, our desires to be more than others, our pain and self-centeredness and enter into the blessed community of saints and sinners, for we ourselves are both. it is when we find ourselves in positions of influence and authority that we are most tempted to forget this truth. This is precisely why, in the gospel of John, the sacramental act is not ordination or even eucharist. It is the washing of feet.
At the Passover seder the youngest present asks four questions, each beginning with the question; “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Today’s gospel reminds us that for the disciples of Jesus, it is the night when they see, as they shall see even more dramatically in the next 24 hours, that the Master and Teacher is the servant of all. They see that the call to discipleship is a call to a radical transformation of human consciousness. It is, unlike our spontaneous sense of self and the impulses of our unconscious, the coming to realize that we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves in service, by falling to our knees and becoming literally lower than those we are serving. This is how we are to teach and how we are to lead.
Saint JudasJames Wright
When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers mulled around the garden stone
And sang, amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms;
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.