It takes humility to serve others, but sometimes it takes even more humility to allow others to serve you. Pope Francis created quite a stir during Holy Week when he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a prison and washed the feet of a dozen inmates. Most of the media coverage focused on the break from the tradition of washing the feet of the cardinals and on the propriety (or impropriety) of including women in the ritual. Michael Sean Winters, however, wrote about the symbolism of the act in his article titled “Pope Francis & the Washing of Feet” in the April 1 issue of National Catholic Reporter.
“In the washing of the feet, we see Jesus entering into a parable, teaching his disciples by example what it means to be the greatest by becoming the least, inverting the normal understandings of power and deference, making service the measure of greatness and linking the acceptance of grace to the purification of one’s life. All this could be written about or spoken of, but Jesus simply did it.”
I’m a recovering co-dependent with a life-long history of people pleasing, so I have no problem serving others. I was also the primary caregiver for both my aging parents for many years, so I knew about the humility it takes to meet some of the very basic needs of others. However, I came face to face with the difficulty accepting grace, of allowing others to serve me, a few years ago at a retreat for the counseling ministry in our church.
A group of professional and lay counselors withdrew from the world for a weekend to refresh and recharge for the demanding work of helping the people who came to us with their hurts and hang ups. We spent time in a series of rope challenges that required us to stretch ourselves physically and to trust those who were holding the ropes. We spent time in teaching sessions and in small groups where we trusted others with our thoughts and feelings. And we spent time in worship. The high point came on Sunday morning in a casual gathering. We praised and worshipped and gathered around the Lord’s table – and then we washed each others’ feet.
Participation in the foot washing was optional, but I looked forward to it. I expected to serve either my husband or one of my close friends by humbling myself at their feet. I could do that. But that’s not exactly how it happened. One of the professional counselors who was in charge of my breakout group sat beside me during the service. As soon as the pastor gave the instructions and invited us to move into the final act of worship, she turned to me.
“Linda, may I wash your feet?”
Wait a minute. This wasn’t what I expected. But I couldn’t gracefully refuse.
“Yes. Thank you.”
She took my hand and led me to one of several washing stations. She seated me in the chair and knelt at my feet. As she rolled up the legs of my jeans and unlaced my shoes, she looked into my eyes and began to talk. I don’t remember the exact words, but they were words of affirmation, about me as a person, as a counselor, as a caregiver. And the tears came.
“This is hard for you, isn’t it,” she said.
“Yes, I feel like Peter when Jesus washed his feet.”
She smiled knowingly as she watched the protective walls I had spent years constructing begin to weaken.
I learned a lot about humility that day. I learned that, in the same way it takes humility to accept the grace of salvation, it takes humility to accept the grace of service from a friend or loved one. I also learned that when serving another, it’s important to make sure they know how much you care about them as a person.
I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t understand a lot of the rituals of the Church, but I understand the humility it requires for one of the most powerful men on earth to kneel at the feet of a dozen convicted criminals. Thank you, Pope Francis, for your example. May we have the humility and grace to follow it. And may we have enough love for those we serve to make acceptance easier.
6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.”
8 “No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”