I do not know how many of you have heard of the Canadian Catholic philosopher and humanitarian, Jean Vanier. For those of you who do not know who he is, allow me to introduce you.
Jean Vanier is the founder of an international organization which creates communities , known as L’Arche communities, where people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them share life together. These homes are in contrasts to nursing homes and facilities for the mentally retarded where the people who care for residents of these homes go home at the end of their shifts. In the L’Arche homes the disabled and their caregivers share life together. The goal of these homes is to enable people even with the most severe disabilities to play their full part in society. In these L’Arche homes, the able and the disabled share life in all its aspects, offering one another their own unique values and gifts.
Jean Vanier has traveled all over the world, establishing these homes or more appropriately these communities. He has earned international recognition for his contributions and humanness to the marginalized.
I introduce you to this remarkable individual who has such compassion and love for the disabled and marginalized and who enjoys international esteem because he also has meaningful and important things to say about the tradition of the ritual of foot washing. And I would like to share with you some of his insights now.
Jean Vanier begins his remarks by reminding us that Jesus surprised the apostles immensely when he got up from table in the middle of this very important meal and started “taking of his clothes,” his outer garment at least.”
He fills a water basin, picks up a towel and begins washing his apostle’s feet. We don’t know how the others reacted but Peter threw a little fit. “You will NEVER wash my feet!” Why do you suppose this upset Peter so much?
Jean Vanier’s thought is that Peter’s sense of hierarchy was really really strong. In Peter’s world and to a great extent still in ours, a hierarchy exists.There are people at the top of the social pyramid, a very few actually, and then as you look down the pyramid it gets wider and wider and at the bottom is the very large number of useless people, the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, the retarded, the chronically unemployed, immigrants and the poor who are so entrenched in poverty there is no way out.
Peter had the same notion and resistance to cultural norms that we all have. The people at the top of the pyramid cannot go around kneeling down at the feet of those on the bottom. It is not in the order of things, it is not how things are done, it not according to culture.
But , then , Jesus does not do things according to culture. So, He uses very strong and powerful words with Pete”If I can’t wash your feet, you shall have no part of me.
In other words, Jesus was saying, “If I cannot show you that I want to be your servant, and through my example, that you will be servant as well, then you are no longer my friend.”
Peter and the rest of us must understand that Jesus turned everything upside down, those who are at the bottom must come up to the top.
He was actually very clear about this. Jesus says, “You call me Lord and Master and so I am. I have washed your feet; you must wash each other’s feet. I have done this as an example to you.”
Jean Vanier says that Jesus washing his apostles feet was a way of teaching us, today, where the washing of feet is not a social norm , that we are to engage each other with deep respect and tenderness, it means using the transforming power of love , (that power that we have access to through the sacraments and our relationship with Jesus,) to reveal to others that they are beautiful , that they are important and cherished and special, that we understand their pain and their needs and that our love for them empowers and calls them to be all that they can be, a beloved and cherished son or daughter of the Father.
Jean Vanier says, that with our hands, and feet and voices, we become vehicles of the love of Jesus ; that we serve each other just as Jesus, God himself , took off his outer garment, got down on his hands and knees washed his disciples feet.
Jesus is reminding us that wherever we are on that social pyramid, we must look downward—because God is hidden in the weak and the poor and the disabled. He is saying, “be attentive to the littlest, to the poorest, to those who are most broken, for I am living there”
And so if you observe or participate in this ancient ritual on Maundy Thursday , do so in witness of your desire to follow the humble Jesus, the broken Jesus, and the weeping Jesus— the Jesus that looks downward to raise up those on the bottom knowing that we do not stay on the bottom. That when we act as Jesus did , in whatever way that our individual lives present us opportunities to do that, we also rise up to eternal life and eternal happiness as Jesus was risen to new life after his emptying of his self for all of us.
Jesus said, I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Our lives are to be an ongoing. “Washing of the feet.”