In another week, the holiest time of our Catholic liturgical year, the Triduum, will be upon us. Beginning with Holy Thursday and continuing through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the celebration of Easter, we will live the Paschal Mystery of Christ. My favorite liturgy of the year is the Holy Thursday Mass where the church, in a particular way, commemorates the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples and the last commission he gave them before he was crucified, to wash each other’s feet.
The year after I graduated from college I spent a year volunteering in a L’Arche community in Washington state as a live-in assistant. L’Arche is an international federation of group homes for people with developmental disabilities (called “Core Members”) and those who assist them (“Assistants”). Jean Vanier, a Catholic theologian and the founder of the L’Arche community, wrote in his book The Scandal of Service, “The fact that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet may seem to some people a simple, ordinary gesture; to others it is something shocking and challenging. In L’Arche we consider the washing of the feet to be an important and highly significant act.”
My year in L’Arche changed forever my view of service— both what it means to serve as well as to be served. My days were filled up with the everyday tasks of making meals, scrubbing toilets, sanitizing kitchen counters, handing out medications, packing lunches, and giving baths. For a 22 year-old straight out of college, the responsibility was immense at times. How was I, with the help of my fellow assistants, to make sure that the 5 core members that we lived with had all of their daily needs met? It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t just the physical needs that we were there to serve, but it was the need of every person, whether assistant or core member, to belong to a community, to be loved unconditionally, and to be seen and heard for who they were. And in these needs I received far more than I gave. The night before I left the community to embark on the next great adventure of my life (marriage), unable to sleep, I sat in the group-home kitchen at 1am and cried. I didn’t want to think I would never be invited to another of Jacob’s impromptu drum concerts, that I wouldn’t have any more dance parties in the kitchen with Amy and Jennifer, that Lance wouldn’t pat me on the back and tell me I’d done “real good,” or that Leslie wouldn’t answer me with a “thumbs up” when I asked her how she was.
In L’Arche houses the washing of the feet takes on a significant meaning because in this blessed and simple community the beauty of human connection is revealed. How important is loving, tender, human touch when one cannot talk or hear or see? How important is loving, tender, human touch when one is pre-occupied with the problems of the world, the stress of running a household, the scourge of depression, or the inability to love oneself? L’Arche assistants learn sooner or later that we all have disabilities, some are just more visible than others. When we washed each other’s feet at the L’Arche house, we did it beyond the roles of assistant and core member. We were simply brothers and sisters before God.
In the excitement of our new pope, Francis I, being chosen, some of the first images of Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio which surfaced on the internet were of the Cardinal washing and kissing feet. In 2001 Cardinal Bergoglio visited a hospice where he washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients. In 2005 he chose to celebrate the Mass for the Lord’s Supper at a maternity hospital in Buenos Aires where he washed the feet of 12 new and expectant mothers. In 2008 he visited a rehabilitation center and washed the feet of 12 recovering drug addicts. In the days, months and years to come, we will doubtless learn more about this man who has been chosen to lead our church, but these images speak poignantly of one who takes the Gospel call to wash each other’s feet seriously.
After silently washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus tells them, “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.” Some things are best said without words.Katy Beedle Rice is the Director of Religious Education at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Juneau. She blogs about motherhood and spirituality at blessedbrokenshared.blogspot.com/