Today’s Gospel gives us a very interesting start to the Sacred Paschal Triduum. This three-day-long-feast begins with a meal, which makes sense. But it’s a meal interrupted by a very important teaching. I think it’s fair to say that Jesus never did anything without also trying to teach something important in the process. When he healed on the Sabbath, he was teaching that the Sabbath was not something to be observed for its own sake, but was for the glory of God and the recharging of people. When he fed the thousands, he was teaching that there was nothing so impossible that God could not make it happen. Even when he chose his disciples, he was teaching that people’s worth was defined by God and not by the things they have accomplished on their own.
So when he interrupts this Passover supper to wash the disciples’ feet, he was trying to teach them something, and to put the meal and the teaching together in context. Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time. In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration. And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot. The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey. It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was not usually supplied by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, like a servant or slave. But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around his waist, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends. So we are about to see that he wasn’t just washing their feet to get a job done or even to provide hospitality; he was dong this to give them an example of what Scripture scholars call kenosis.
I had a Scripture teacher who always used to talk about kenosis. During my seminary days, we went through some pretty rough times with the Church. Just two weeks after we started, we had the tragedy of 9/11. Along with the rest of the country, we all felt like the bottom had dropped out and nothing was really certain any more. Then, the following spring, the sexual abuse scandal broke wide open, and so many of us wondered what we were getting ourselves into. Many of us had personal tragedies as well, me included when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer just one month apart from each other. We ended our time in seminary with the tragic death of two of our brother seminarians in a car crash on the school grounds. Life is like that, we all have things that we go through and we wonder why we go on, why we even try to live as disciples. And I remember whenever we would express that, one of my Scripture teachers would always look at us and say, “It’s all about kenosis.”
At first when we heard that we looked at him like most of you are looking at me right now. But we came to know what kenosis meant. It is a New Testament Greek word that basically means “self-emptying.” It comes from the root word kenos which is used to describe places or vessels that are empty, or to describe people who are empty handed or arrive without a gift. Kenosis in the New Testament sense is used to describe Jesus Christ, who as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Christ emptied himself of the honor that was rightfully his as our God and took our own human form. That’s kenosis.
And he drove the point home as he finished this great act of service. He says, “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.” If even our Lord who had the right to demand anything from us, to whom he gave everything, if even he would tie a towel around his waist and wash people’s feet, then we disciples, we followers of the Lord, we who would look for our reward with him, we must also be willing to do whatever it takes to bring people to salvation. We’re not supposed to just watch the Mass be performed for us, we’re supposed to live the Mass every day of our lives in any place the Lord puts us, knowing that he walked that way before us, and that our reward will be great. We, brothers and sisters, are called to kenosis in our own lives.
But here’s the kicker: another aspect of our own call to kenosis is that sometimes we have to empty out the part of us that desperately wants to do everything for ourselves, and to let someone else minister to us in our need. I told you about my parents both being sick when I was in seminary. That was such a hard time for me, mostly because I was still really convinced that I could get through anything life threw at me on my own. But I had to learn that sometimes I need to let my friends pick me up and carry me to Jesus when I couldn’t get there on my own. I’m bad at that. I’m like Peter – no one’s going to wash my feet. But I learned that I have to get over that if I’m ever going to be empty enough for Christ to fill me up. It’s not about me – and it can’t be about any of us, we who would take up our crosses to follow our Lord.
There’s another part of this Gospel that really strikes me. You heard me tell you about the practice of washing the feet of guests in Jesus’ day. So when do you think their feet would be washed? Immediately upon arriving, of course: their feet were dusty and tired from the journey. But that’s not what happens here, is it? The Gospel reading says that during the supper, Jesus rose, changed his clothes, and washed their feet. That’s a detail that would really stick out to those hearing the story in that day, because they understood the practice. Now Jesus didn’t wash their feet at that time because he forgot to do it when they arrived, or because he had just now noticed how filthy their feet were. He had a very specific reason for washing their feet during the meal. Because now that great act of kenosis would be forever intimately tied to the celebration of the Eucharist. Because of the very precise timing of this act of service, we who receive the Eucharist now know that we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to pour ourselves out in service to our brothers and sisters. Every time we are fed by our Lord, we must always remember that we are called by our Lord to empty ourselves and become the presence of Christ for those who share life with us.
On this great night, as we begin the great three-day feast of our Savior’s triumph over sin and death, we come together to share a meal – the same meal he shared with his friends on that night so long ago. And because we Catholics don’t simply remember this night with mere fond recollections of an ancient historical event, but instead by entering into the experience in all its fullness yet again, then we have to hear the same commandment Jesus gave his disciples: “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.” As we gather and come forward to do this in remembrance of Christ, may we also pour ourselves out each day for our brothers and sisters, lovingly washing their feet just as ours have been washed by our Saving Lord.