How often during this Jubilee Year of Mercy have we heard those astonishing words of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew:
When I was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, imprisoned, without a grave, you came to my aid; for whenever you do these things for the least of my sisters and brothers, you are doing it for me
The CTS has published a booklet, Corporal Works of Mercy: Mercy in Action, which explores those statements of Jesus one by one and suggests practical ways in which we might respond to them.
But there is another scene, this time in the Gospel of John, which we have perhaps not heard as often as we ought this year. It teaches much the same lesson as Matthew, and it does so not merely by word but by an extraordinary action.
It is the night of the Last Supper. Jesus gets up from the table, slips off his outer garment, secures a towel round his waist and picks up a bowl of water –then he approaches his friends.
Jesus, God’s own Son, crouching down at the feet of his creatures, tenderly washing and wiping dirty, dust-covered, smelly feet. No wonder, Peter protests. “You will never wash my feet!”
After all, in Jesus’s day, this task was only undertaken by a slave, and a non-Jewish slave at that. Yet Jesus insists that it must be done, and at the end adds these words:
If I your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should also do as I have done to you.
Of course he is not calling upon us literally to wash one another’s feet but rather to love and serve the other in whatever way we can. Each one of the seven corporal works of mercy is an example of foot-washing, and so too is every action we do to help our neighbour. Foot-washing comes in innumerable different guises.
The other Gospel writers show our Lord instituting the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. John does not, but in recording the foot washing of his disciples, he is perhaps wanting to remind us that Eucharist and foot-washing go together. The Jesus who said: “Do this in memory of me” is the same Jesus who said: “Do as I have done to you”.
Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta expressed it beautifully when she said that there is something radically amiss if we are able to recognise Jesus in the form of Bread and Wine but fail to recognise him in the broken bodies and spirits of our sisters and brothers.
There is a sting in the tail of John’s account of the foot-washing; in its final sentence, Jesus tells his disciples, and us too: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”. In this year of Mercy we need to be reminded that we “are blessed” not simply because we “know” about foot-washing, but because we “do” it.
You can find more titles for the Year of Mercy here.