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“As I have done for you, you should also do.”

Marquette Magazine asked Rev. Thomas Anderson, S.J., who serves as assistant director of Campus Ministry, to reflect on a moment that acquainted the world with the new Pontiff.

A gesture. How much can a gesture say?

“Then Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”

The foot-washing is rather peculiar and so singular an event that only one evangelist had the courage to record it. Yet the foot-washing is so central an event that we proclaim it each year as we embark on our celebration of Triduum. The foot-washing teaches us who our God is and who we are to be — and it’s all about feet.

I must admit a little reluctance when it comes to feet. Wouldn’t you rather hide your feet? They are comfortably resting in their shoes, snuggled in their socks. They weren’t meant to see the light of day, but rather to carry us where we need to go — and the callouses, bunions and corns attest to all they’ve borne. Let’s keep them out of sight.

But our reluctance collides with God’s desire, for Jesus reaches out to grab our feet. It’s an act of startling intimacy by a God who wants to get close, who wants to feed us with his very self and caress our cares in his hands.

Still, they’re feet.

If ever after a long day you’ve taken off your shoes … it’s dirty, smelly work to deal with feet. Peter protests because people like Jesus shouldn’t be exposed to that. In Hebrew society, the lowest class of slave was set aside for foot-washing. Yet, that’s who Jesus, who our God chooses to be: a slave for love of us.

Can you hear the silence that fell on that memorial meal, the pause when Jesus began to wash and caress each individual’s feet? Silence must still have reigned when Jesus sat back down and said, “As I have done for you, you should also do.”

We who follow Jesus are to be servants of each other. We who follow Jesus must surrender our positions at the table and get over our reluctance for the griminess of the world. We must bow down and approach each other’s feet with the compassion of Christ.

This year, Pope Francis chose to celebrate Holy Thursday at Rome’s Casal del Marmo Detention Centre. When it came time for the foot-washing, the pope bowed down and washed and then kissed the feet of 12 juvenile inmates. The 12 included two girls, one of whom was Muslim. This was not the traditional lineup of 12 chosen clerics at St. Peter’s Basilica or St. John Lateran. This was a pope in prison with criminals.

In his homily, Pope Francis underscored the significance of this gesture: “Washing feet means: ‘I am at your service.’ … As a priest and a bishop, I must be at your service.”

I am at your service, like Jesus, a slave for love. This love is for all, even for those most forgotten by society, even for feet.

Earlier in the day at the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis called on the assembled priests to be those who “go out” to “where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.” This fits with his March 9 preconclave speech that so resounded with the cardinal electors declaring that the Catholic Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries. We who follow Jesus are called to get over our reluctance for the griminess of this world. We must bow down and approach each other’s feet and become servants of each other.

True, it was only a gesture that the leader of the world’s Catholics gave on Holy Thursday, following the lead of Jesus long ago — but it was a gesture that resonated across the globe. When a youth imprisoned in Sylmar Juvenile Hall in the San Fernando Valley of California heard of it, he wrote: “Dear Pope Francis, thank you for washing the feet of youth like us in Italy. We also are young and made mistakes. Society has given up on us. Thank you that you have not given up on us.”

The Easter message is that God does not give up on us, not ever. A foot’s caress is but a gesture of how close God longs to be. Our God is the one who doesn’t back away, who doesn’t shy away no matter what shame we feel. Pope Francis’ gesture reminds us of that: We must be servants of each other.

“I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”


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