If you will allow me, I have written here a personal reflection. It is 6 pm local time and in a little while, I will make my way to the church to celebrate Holy Thursday. Those who are acquainted with the FCJ story will know that Holy Thursday is an especially significant feast, marking the foundation of the Society.
It was last year that I did the Nineteenth Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, a grace of the Spirit and a fruit that my work with the Sisters of the Asia-Australia Province has brought. It was during the Third Week that I had made a profound personal connection in the reading (prayer) material.
In the gospel passage for Holy Thursday, we hear that Jesus “took off his outer robe” (NRSV). He then picks up the towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. (John 13:4) My experience with biblical exegesis is basic at best, but what I did pick up on was that the word in the original Koine Greek is the same word that John the evangelist uses in his discourse on the Good Shepherd in chapter 10. Please note that I have yet to recover the sources from which I gathered the information that lead to such a conclusion, but significant enough for now is what it means to me. When Jesus lays down his outer garment, it is symbolic (as John’s gospel likes to be!) of his coming death, where he would lay his life down on the Cross. Jesus, after all, is the Good Shepherd, which by the way, is another section of our faith tradition that is found only in John’s gospel!
Fast-forward then, to the present moment. Something was stirring inside of me – I could not (cannot) let go of that connection between Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (the role of the servant) and laying his life down for us. From this perspective, they are both one and the same. What’s more is that Jesus calls us to do the same: ‘”So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet.”‘ (John 13:14)
But still the stirring would not go away. I did what any person of my generation would do these days when I wanted to do some research: I googled it. I typed in “Jesus takes off his outer robe”, and sure enough, I came upon a reflection by L’Arche founder Jean Vanier.
I have included the following section and have highlighted what spoke to me as I read it, bearing in mind that there are only hours in the Easter Triduum, only hours between one feast to the next. Only hours between celebrating the institution of the Eucharist with a living, breathing, foot-washing Jesus, and the one who we will crucify (as is traditional among the congregation to voice the role of the crowd in the Good Friday service). It is only hours from that horrific and disturbing account of death and when we celebrate new life on Easter morning!
So here is Jean Vanier, with layers and layers of wisdom and depth:
We had also welcomed into that house, Eric. Eric had lived for 12 years in the psychiatric hospital. He was blind, he was deaf, he couldn’t walk, and he couldn’t feed himself. He was a man with an immense amount of anguish — a man who wanted to die. In the psychiatric hospital the nurses rather avoided him because he wasn’t gratifying, he could do nothing.
He came to our community, and in him there was this terrible desire to die. He vomited everything that he ate. He was just in immense anguish and immense pain. (I mentioned this afternoon Moses with his pain.) But with Eric it was even more painful. His anguish and his desire to die were evident.
I said that, for us in L’Arche or in Faith and Light, our mission in welcoming Eric is to help him to move from the desire to die to a desire to live. We want him to move from a feeling of being no good to a sense of his value and his worth — from a feeling of guilt to a feeling of trust.
I said this afternoon that the only way…[is through] the transforming power of love. Through that love which reveals that you are beautiful; love that understands your pain and your needs; love which celebrates; love which empowers and calls you to be and to be yourself; and a love that forgives.
But for Eric, how will this be revealed to him? He is blind and he is deaf. So the only way of communication with Eric is through our hands. These are the incredible hands that we have been given by Jesus — hands that give security; hands that give peace; hands that manifest love. But hands that also can hurt; can take; can abuse.
I had the privilege of giving Eric his bath every morning. … This was a fragile little man of 16. And through our hands (because it was not just me, but those of our community together) we revealed to him that he is beautiful.
We are to touch people with a deep respect — to touch them with tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, may become vehicles of the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh, that our flesh may become word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value — that they are cherished and loved by God.
Our hands are, in some mysterious way, a source of revelation of communion. Jesus, as he knelt down in front of the feet of his disciples, knows that tomorrow he will be dead. But he wants to have with each disciple a moment. Not just to say goodbye.
Up until now he has just talked with the group. When you talk with a whole group you don’t have that individual contact with each person. Jesus wants that contact with each one of these people. He wants to touch them — to touch their feet; to touch their bodies; to touch them with tenderness and love. Maybe to each one he says a word; maybe looks each one in the eye. There is a moment of communion.
So there is communion through the Body of Christ, where Jesus says “do this in memory of me.” But there is also this communion as he kneels at their feet. And later he will say “I have done this as an example for you. And what I have done to you, you must do one to another.” So this is a gesture of communion, of tenderness.
For the full article, please click here. And as we move into Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, let us remember that wherever we are, whoever we are and however we are, we are to touch people (and let people touch us) with deep respect and reverence, the same kind of reverence shown to the body that is then laid in the tomb.
G. Anderson, 2013.
Editor’s note: I wrote the above reflection last year, but it remained unpublished. Here it is now, as it was then, for your consideration. All viewpoints are strictly my own.
Blessings for your journey into Easter, from all of us at Keeping Company and the FCJ Mission and Identity Team.