“And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean…”
This is the setting for the pedilavium, as it came to be called liturgically — the washing of the disciples’ feet on the night in which he was betrayed. What I want to do is to show you how the Church Fathers understood such a text and the Fathers I have consulted are St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, as well as, St Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas is technically not a Church Father, but a “Doctor” of the Church but in his commentary he too consults not only Chrysostom and Augustine, but other Fathers as well. All of these men first of all understood the text to be first of all historically accurate in its details, but in addition to the historic event they sought for what they called the “mystical” meaning. By “mystical” they did not mean a hidden or esoteric meaning but just the opposite. The “mystical” meaning is what we might call the doctrinal or dogmatic meaning. So here we go.
The supper having ended with the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus rose up and “laid aside his garments,” and washed his disciples’ feet, after which the Beloved Disciple reports he then “took his garments,” by which he meant that Jesus removed the towel and put his outward garment back on. The word that is used here and translated as “laid aside his garments” is the word Jesus used in chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel:
“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep…Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.”
“I lay down,” referencing his life, is one word, the very same word used in chapter 13 which is translated “laid aside,” there referencing his clothing. Five times Jesus says that he is Good Shepherd because he will “lay down his life” for his sheep. And the same is true for the word translated, “taken his garments,” after washing the disciples’ feet, while in chapter 10 it refers to the resurrection. That is when Jesus, in the 10th chapter, declares that he has authority to “lay down my life, that I might take it again,” he means to place emphasis upon his voluntary death on behalf of the world as well as his resurrection. No one took his life from him, he laid it down of his own free will and he will take it back as he pleases. Thus he will lay aside his garments of flesh upon the Cross and offer up his human life for the life of the world. But Jesus is true God as well as true man. He takes up his true humanity and cloths himself once again with his glorified humanity, when he is raised up from the dead. Jesus’ action of washing the disciples’ feet is thus framed by actions that are at once real actions in time and actions that symbolically allude to laying down his life and taking it up again.
Between those two actions, Jesus pours water into a basin, which is also an action in historic time as well as an action which is representative of Jesus “pouring out his life for the life of the world,” as well as the Sacrament of Baptism by which we appropriate Sacrifice of Calvary, which cleanses us from our sins. The imagery of pouring out water or wine was a literary convention in antiquity that indicated death. St. Paul wrote Timothy declaring that he was already being poured out like a drink offering upon the Altar of God and the hour of his departure was near. So too when the Roman Soldier pierced Jesus’ side, as he was dying upon the Cross, both water and blood poured forth from his side. So all together, the pouring of water into the basin, reminded Chrysostom, Augustine, Origin, and Thomas of both the death of the Messiah as well as the great Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
“Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.”
So what Jesus is doing, as of first importance, is applying the grace of baptism and absolution to his little flock on the night he was betrayed. And note that this “absolution” precedes the long hours of teaching that will take up most of Thursday night and Friday morning. It is as though he is saying there is a cleansing that naturally precedes our grasp of the Mysteries of the Faith.
When Peter catches on to the pedilavium by Jesus is absolutely necessary for him to remain in Jesus’ life and for Jesus to be truly present in his life, he, Peter, offers up his whole body, head to foot for washing. But Jesus responds:
“He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.”
This is the real heart of the matter and this is why, though it is true that Jesus himself indicates that his action is an action of humility, that is only partially true. The rest of the truth, the substantial reality of the event, the heart of the matter, lies in Jesus’ action and in particular what is revealed in the business between him and Peter: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean.” It is as though our Lord said to Peter, “Peter he who has been bathed is clean from head to foot and Peter, I am not talking about washing away mere dirt. I am talking about cleaning from sin and your restoration in the Image of God; I am talking about why you were created, I am talking about the true meaning of your whole soul and life.” Later on that night Jesus will reveal to his disciples that the Father will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, and when he comes he will lead them to grasp a reality that they cannot even begin to comprehend till after his death and resurrection. But of course they are only more and more confused because they simply refuse to think of the possibility of his death because for them, given their horizon that night, death only meant utter defeat.
Here is the upshot: The faithful Christian is cleansed by the blood of Jesus because we participate in his reality when we are baptized into his death. This cleansing is not only forgiveness of our sins, but it is also purification from sin — that we are now equipped by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power so that we may triumph over sin. But we still need the pedilavium, because we live and move through this world inhabiting its flawed and sinful structures of being that the world calls the real world. Still even in the midst of this “naughty world” we may triumphant. But triumph as we may, we are not to behave triumphantly over one another. We are to love one another and have one another’s back. Jesus’ disciples will practice the Lordship of Christian humility. Christian humility is meaningful because our God humbled himself to be born, as St. Paul writes, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” God has saved us through his humility. And though you have been cleaned through and through by the Sacrament of Baptism, you will need to be come to Jesus for cleansing, and appropriate a sort of mystical pedilavium, which is to say we may confess our sins and be certain of our absolution. We are cleansed every bit, through and through, but we need to wash our feet.
The narrative of the pedilavium is timely for the Church since we are on the threshold of Lent. Here is a wonderful reminder that our Lord’s love for us and his solidarity with us is not dependent upon our perfections, but our humility and his love and faithfulness to flee to Jesus relief and forgiveness. We can conquer sin in our lives individually, in our families and in our communities, but our short comings and failures do not exclude us from participation in Jesus’ life because we can confess our sins and we can be absolutely sure of his forgiveness and cleansing. You have nothing to fear from Jesus! Sin will not have dominion over us!
We are about to intentionally impose extraordinary measures of discipline to our lives, individually and collectively, as members of Holy Mother Church. We are about to require of our selves, individually and collectively, an extraordinary measure of prayer and acts of love. We have nothing to fear from Jesus! What is there to fear from a God of flesh who knells before you to wash your feet? And given that fact how can we do other than to imitate his behavior knowing that our imitation of Jesus is true participation in what is really real in life? When you were baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you were engrafted into Jesus’ true life. You are in Jesus. Just as Jesus laid aside his garments on the night he was betrayed so he would lay aside his human life and offer it up to his Father in a humiliating death on the Cross. Just as Jesus, once he has finished the task of cleansing his disciples, took up his garments again, so three days after Calvary, Christ was raised from the dead never to die again. Now you and I are participating in the life of God the Blessed Trinity. That is the reality of life. Listen to the way St. Paul explained our participation in Christ and our defeat of sin:
“How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life… Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus loves us and there is nothing to fear in drawing closer and closer to Christ our God. The only thing in the world that we should fear is sin. And even sin cannot defeat you if you trust in Jesus. The flesh of Jesus is the place of judgement and as you faithfully and truly confess your sin, he is, mystically speaking, upon his knee of human flesh, washing you clean through and through. May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit grant us all a sacred Lent that brings glory to Jesus Christ our God.