Holy Thursday: He Was Who He Was

Last summer, when I was a counselor at a Catholic summer camp, my fellow counselors and I held a foot washing service on the second night of session.  All of upper middle quad (cabins 8, 9, and 10) piled into cabin nine, numbering about three dozen campers in total.  We read them the same scripture passage which the Church uses at Holy Thursday Mass, each of the counselors reading a different part of the story: one of us was the narrator, another Peter, and another Jesus.

Then we washed those kids’ feet.  And when I say washed, I really mean washed.  I took a bar of soap, and scrubbed each foot, while two other counselors followed behind to rinse and a fourth used a towel to dry their feet.

Ten-year-olds really know how to get their feet dirty, and we had six dozen feet to scrub.  As I came to each camper, they would glance around and laugh nervously, then sit very still as we washed their feet.

Ultimately, I think most of them understood the lesson we were trying to get across: we may be your counselors, and we may be in charge, but we are here to serve you.  Trust us, we know what we are doing.  Also, “wash each other’s feet.” Take care of each other.  Serve.  And washing your own feet in the shower every now and then wouldn’t be a bad idea…we ended up throwing away two white washcloths which turned nearly black, and I am still amazed that I didn’t get eight different kinds of foot fungus.

But what I discovered was that the real lesson wasn’t for the campers.  It was for me and my fellow counselors.  It was hard, and somewhat embarrassing, to get down on my knees in front of a kid half my age and soap up his feet.  But it reminded me why I was there in the first place. It forced me to literally look up at my campers rather than down at them (a rare occurrence, considering the massive height difference).  In a cabin full of fifth and sixth graders, it forced me to be humble, and realize that my job here was to serve, not to be served.  To obey, not to be obeyed.

I have to wonder, on Holy Thursday, whether the same might not have been true for Jesus.  The lesson he was teaching his disciples is clear enough, and we hear it beautifully recapitulated in the Holy Thursday homily and readings every year.  But I think he was also teaching himself a lesson.

That night, Jesus’ nerves must have been on fire.  God though he was, he was also fully human.  He must have been scared and anxious, mentally counting down the hours until his great suffering would begin.  As he looked around the table, he would have seen his very best friends gathered at his side for what he knew was the last time.  As he looked lovingly into their eyes, he already knew that these men, the people closest to him, would let him down when he needed them most.  One would betray him, and the others would scatter out of fear.  His best friend would deny him three times.

I imagine his mind must have raced and leaped in nervous anticipation, wondering exactly when it would start.

And so he washed their feet.

The foot washing was a reminder to himself of why he was there.  Why he was going to die for these men who would let him down.  A reminder of who he was.  To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, he was “Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.” In such a moment, when the whole universe balanced on the tip of a pin, waiting in anticipation, he did what came most naturally to him, what was most indicative of his nature.

He was who he was.

He loved.

He knelt down, and humbled himself.  He humiliated himself before his disciples, reminding himself of his enormous love for them.  These men were his friends.  He knew he could do anything for them.

And he did.  He washed them, cleaning them up only moments before they would dirty themselves again by abandoning him.

He could do nothing else.

He was nothing else.

He was who he was.

He took a deep breath, and embraced his father’s plan.

He set everything in order, teaching one final lesson, both to himself and to his friends.

Then he went forth to die.

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