Each year for the Holy Thursday Mass, twelve men are chosen to have their feet washed as a remembrance of what Christ did for his apostles during the Last Supper. It is also a reminder what Jesus said in the Gospel: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not great than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you who do them.” (John 13:12-17)
Last night I was one of the twelve chosen in our parish. It is a very humbling thing to have done before several hundred of my fellow parishioners and family. To have my feet washed by Fr. Lyle, a man who has for his thirty-six years as a Catholic priest dedicated his life and so much time to the service of others (including me and my family) seems backwards. Just as Peter protested that he would not have his feet washed by his Lord and Teacher my first reaction was similar. Surely I should be washing Fr. Lyle’s feet. That is how the world would see it to be sure.
I’ve read the cynical writings and comments by many Catholics or ex-Catholics about their priests, usually coming from a more liberal area of the country, and it saddens me. Every priest I know or have come into contact with in the Diocese of Lincoln, Omaha or Grand Island (all in Nebraska) do not share the clerical traits I hear about. Are they human men with human faults? Of course. I’m most fortunate to reside where I do and wish those Catholics and non- or ex-Catholics who sneer at the idea of a humble, servicing priesthood could see and experience what I do daily.
One of the common traits you often hear of regarding the saints is that they were painfully aware of their shortcomings and sins as they increased in their holiness. I do not dare to compare myself with a saint, but I have on occasion received a glimmer of this self-awareness. One wonders if that’s why so many reject and pillory Christianity or water down Christ’s teachings so as to make him nothing more than a great guy who taught some really cool things. Cafeteria Christianity. It is that type of Christianity that does not take to heart the following from Psalm 38, which was a part of this morning’s prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours:
My guilt towers higher than my head;
it is a weight too heavy to bear.
My wounds are foul and festering,
the result of my own folly.
How often is it that our wounds are self-inflicted through our decisions?
The first of the seven Christian virtues listed is Humility. Each virtue has a corresponding capital sin, and in this instance it is Pride. One of the barriers to effective prayer is having a prideful center, or heart. We pray for things we think we need, but they are often merely wants. And when these prayers go unanswered we stiffen our necks and become bitter. Surely it wasn’t me or my prayer that was inadequate and led to the answer I got. I think
the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a good insight into humility as it relates to prayer when it says:
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.” (CCC 2559)
Did you catch that? Humility is the foundation of prayer. And to provide context it says that man assumes a most humbling position: that of a beggar.
As if to drive the point home a few paragraphs later the Catechism says
“If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” (CCC 2562)
We are called as Christian to imitate Christ. To model our lives after his. Within John 13 we are given just such a lesson. In verses 1-11 Christ modeled selfless service to us. In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus performs a service normally done by the household slaves. St. Peter, at the time, could not understand why Jesus would want to humble himself in such a way. Jesus’ gesture is a simple and symbolic one which shows that he “came not to be served but to serve”, and that his service consisted in “[giving] his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It makes clear to all the apostles, and, through them, to all who would enter the Church, that humble service of others likens the disciple to the Master. In verses 12-20 Jesus explains why he did what he did and issues the call to service through humility.
And here is where we see what was perhaps the final straw for Judas. He wanted a Messianic warrior, one who would liberate the Jews from the tyranny of the Roman Empire through the means Judas knew: open revolution. Instead he found himself a disciple of the Messiah who was Love and non-violent. And so, after witnessing Christ’s humbleness and having his feet washed by His Master, he leaves the upper room with thirty pieces of silver in his pocket. Blood money awash in pride.
How many of us filled with such pride, both Christian and non-Christian, feel the same way and choose to leave Christ’s presence?
I read an excellent metaphor today that illustrates this point about humility and service in another way. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, an English novelist (1803-1873) wrote:
Trees that, like the poplar, lift upward all their boughs, give no shade and shelter whatever their height. Trees the most lovingly shelter and shade us when, like the willow, the higher soar their summits, the lowlier droop their boughs.
We should assume the position of the household slave. Drop not just our physical position but our internal guard as well, and selflessly serve. We don’t have to be as radical and go as far as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, but there surely are ways we can begin within our own households and spheres of influence. We can and should lower our defenses, along with our boughs. To do so takes a lot of courage; courage that many seem unwilling to tap into. It is a courage that leads to freedom.
Bulwer-Lytton’s writing brought to mind one of my favorite lines from Youth And Age by Coleridge and one I quote often. “Friendship is a sheltering tree.”
And so it is, and can be, if we are selfless in our service to others as we are called to be by our Teacher.
With humble and contrite hearts (hopefully) we also prayed Psalm 51 in this morning’s Liturgy of the Hours. A penitential psalm of David, it is traditionally known as the Miserere (miz-a-ray-ray) because the psalm’s opening words in Latin are Miserere mei, Deus. (Have mercy on me, O God). It provided inspiration for one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Have a listen, and have a wonderful Easter Sunday everyone.