Detail from the Washing of the Feet window, representing the Sacrament of Holy Orders, at Pope John Paul II Catholic High School in Huntsville, Alabama.
THE WASHING OF THE FEET AND THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY ORDERS
In the thirteenth chapter of St. John’s gospel Jesus washes the feet of his twelve disciples before celebrating the Last Supper. This passage is very familiar to us, since we hear it during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper each Holy Thursday. In many of our parishes it is even re-enacted, as it were, with the foot-washing ritual that is an optional part of that great liturgy.
In modern times it has been fairly customary to focus on the words Christ spoke after he had finished washing the feet of the Twelve: “I have given you an example to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also should do.” Everything that our Lord did and said was for our instruction. His actions in this passage are perfectly consonant with his teachings about love, service, and putting others first. For this reason, often in our parishes we have had twelve members representing the full demographic – men, women, and children – take part in the foot-washing ritual as a sign that all of us are called to do as the Lord Jesus did. Since his call to service is addressed to everyone – not just to priests – the question thus arises: What, specifically, does this gospel scene have to do with the sacrament of Holy Orders?
We begin to find the answer – and the literal meaning of the passage – when we go back a bit farther and consider some of the other words that Christ spoke. Peter protested, “You will never wash my feet!”, to which Jesus responded, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” With this somewhat mysterious reply Our Lord takes us back to the Old Testament priesthood, which he wished to bring to its fulfillment in the priesthood of his New Covenant. Each of the tribes of Israel had been given its own share of land by the Lord, where they could live in security and raise their families in fidelity to him – that is, except for the twelfth tribe: the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. They were not given a portion of land, for “the Lord himself is their inheritance” (Deuteronomy 18:2; see also Numbers 18:20, Psalms 16:5, etc.). In other words, their life and ministry as priests was not to be oriented to the passing things of this world, but to the enduring things of God.
It is also striking to consider that the washing of feet was a prerequisite for priestly service at the altar (see Exodus 30:17-21): “They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die.” Thus we know from the Lord’s words and deeds of his intent to confer the priestly dignity on the Twelve; he wished to give them himself as their priestly inheritance, and he would make them worthy of the altar by washing their feet. The Old Testament allusions would have been clear to the Twelve, all observant Jews. And the Last Supper narratives from the other gospels confirm what Jesus was doing, for he instructed the Twelve at the first Eucharist, “Do this in memory of me.”
The literal meaning of this scene from St. John’s gospel, therefore, is the ordination of the Twelve as the first priests of Christ’s Church. There are certainly other valid meanings, such as our common call to serve one another, but those interpretations are secondary – though perhaps they find greater resonance at different points in history. In any case, the celebration of this washing ritual on the day when Christ instituted the sacred priesthood, Holy Thursday, indicates that the gospel is to be understood – at least today – primarily in its literal sense. This is why the liturgical rubrics indicate very clearly that the feet of twelve men are to be washed, so that the symbolic action reflects the reality of the all-male priesthood that was willed and instituted by our Lord.
On this day, then, let us pray for all priests, especially those most in need of our prayers. And pray also for those who are preparing to ascend the altar, our seminarians, and that more young men will have the courage to say yes to the Lord who calls them to ministerial service in his Church.