Why Did Jesus Need to Wash Peter’s Feet? An Urgent Question for Any Christian Living in the World
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Jesus comes to Peter to wash his feet. Peter says to him, “Lord, do you want to wash my feet?” Jesus answers, “What I am doing you do not know now but afterward you will understand.”
Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
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It is indeed difficult to understand why the Lord desired to wash Peters’ feet. Why and in what sense was it necessary? What is this washing of feet always repeatedly necessary after the bath, that is, after baptism?
In the book, Journey to Easter, Pope Benedict replies:
Without a doubt, we are made clean interiorly in baptism, feet as well. We have been made “clean,” but while we have to go on living her below, our feet must walk on the soil of this world. St. Augustine reflects saying: “And thus our human feelings themselves, which are inseparable from our human life on earth, are like feet wherewith we are brought into sensible contact with human affairs, and are so in such a way, that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” But the Lord stands before God and, interceding for us, washes our feet day after day, at the moment when we pronounce the prayer “Forgive us our trespasses.” In the daily prayer of the Our Father, Jesus bends down to us, still today, takes a towel and washes our feet.
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Following on this, St. Augustine adds a reflection on another text of Scripture take from the Song of Solomon, where he finds some verses at first puzzling to him, on the same subject, the washing of feet. In chapter 5 of the Song the following scene is found: The Bride is on her couch, asleep – her heart watches. At that moment she hears a shout. The Beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister.” The Bride does not want to. “I had put off my garment, how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet, how could I soil them?”
Here the reflection of the Holy Doctor begins. The Beloved knocking at the door of the Bride is Christ, the Lord. The Bride is the Church, the souls who love the Lord. But – says St. Augustine – how can they soil their feet by going to the Lord, if they go to open the door to him? However could the way to Christ, who washes our feet, make those feet dirty? By such a paradox St. Augustine reveals something crucial for his life as a pastor, his dilemma between his desire for prayer, silence, intimacy with God, and the necessity for administrative work, meetings, pastoral life. The Bishop says, the Bride who does not want to open the door represents those contemplative people who seek complete retirement, entire seclusion from the world, and want to live only on the beauty of truth and faith, leaving the world to itself. But Christ comes, shouts, awakens the soul, knocks on the door and says, “You are living in contemplation but you have shut the door on me. You seek leisure for just a few while outside there is a flood of evil and the love of the multitude grows cold….”
The Lord knocks therefore to break into the repose of the holy idlers and calls, “Open to me… open to me and preach me to others.” To say the truth, by opening the door, and going out on apostolic work, we inevitably soil our feet. But we soil them for Christ, while outside the crowd is waiting which we can join in no other way than by passing through the defilement of the world where they are.
Thus St. Augustine interprets his own destiny. After his conversion it had been his intention to found a monastery, leave the world for good, and live with friends for truth alone and contemplation. But in 391, with his unwilling ordination to the priesthood, the Lord had ruined the repose, had knocked and gone on knocking day after day and calling out, “Open to me and preach to others.” Augustine had to learn to understand that this daily call was really the voice of Jesus, that Jesus was obliging him o go out into the uncleanness of the pope (the holy Bishop at this time was also the Khadi, the civil judge) and that paradoxically it’s as precisely in this way that he was on the road towards Jesus, drawing near to the Lord.
“Open to me and preach me to others.” St. Augustine’ generous reply requires no comment. “Be see, I rise and open – O Christ, wash our feet; forgive us our debts because our love is not altogether extinguished, for we also forgive our debtors. When we listen to thee the bones which have been humbled rejoice in the heavenly places. But when we preach thee we have to treat the ground in order to open to thee; and then, if we are blameworthy we are troubled; if we are commended we become inflated. Wash our feet that were formerly cleansed, but have again been soiled in our walking through the art to open unto thee.” (St. Augustine, Treatise on John, LVI, 4 C Hr XXXVI).