Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 57, “The Footwashing”

Dear friend, *

There’s no more touching moment in the liturgy of the Catholic Church than when the priest washes the feet of twelve lay people on Holy Thursday. I can’t remember this taking place in the Episcopal Church of my youth. Frankly, I can’t quite imagine it there either.

It recalls the moment at the Last Supper when Jesus did the same for his Apostles. Romano Guardini sets aside the notion that Jesus is acting moralistically, modeling ethical behavior. “The idea that Jesus was constantly setting an example has done much to spoil his sacred picture. . . . No, Christ lived among his disciples spontaneously, doing from moment to moment what was ‘right’ without thinking particularly of the example he was giving. Because he acted unconsciously, genuinely, from his essence outward, not the other way around, all he did was perfect.”

So what was Christ doing? And why is it so hard to imitate?

In the footwashing RG sees the Incarnation: a concrete example of God humbling himself to man. “Genuinely humble is the greater man who bows before the lesser because in his eyes the little man has a mysterious dignity. . . .The Incarnation is the fundamental humility on which all human humility rests (Phil. 2:5–10). That is what we have here in the footwashing. But the act goes deeper still.” Guardini goes on to discuss kenosis, God’s “emptying of himself” spoken of in Philippians 2:6-7. This is one of many places in The Lord where the discussion goes over my theological head. But at the end of the chapter, Guardini hits straight for the heart:

“Peter [who questions the footwashing] must participate in the mystery of divine surrender if he is to share in the life of Christ, for it is the kernel of Christianity. . . .

“Every Christian one day reaches the point where he too must be ready to accompany the Master into destruction and oblivion: into that which the world considers folly, that which for his own understanding is incomprehensible, for his own feeling intolerable. Whatever it is to be: suffering, dishonor, the loss of loved ones, or the shattering of a lifetime oeuvre, this is the decisive test of his Christianity. Will he shrink back before the ultimate depths, or will he be able to go all the way and thus win his share of the life of Christ? What is it we fear in Christianity if not precisely this demand? That is why we try to water it down to a less disturbing system of ‘ethics’ or ‘Weltanschauung’ or what have you. But to be a Christian means to participate in the life of Christ—all of it; only the whole brings peace.”

I run my mind over the “sacrifices” I have made in my life, the ways—how few!—that I have “humbled” myself for Christ—hey, for anything. This demand puts everyone to the test. It also puts me in mind of the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Because here I am feeling challenged to think of great examples of humbling myself (note the contradiction in terms) while the small sacrifice, the tiny humiliation that goes unnoticed may be harder still.

So let’s leave it as a question only: How far are we willing to accompany the Master . . . into that which the world considers folly?


* This post continues a series of meditations on The Lord by Romano Guardini framed as open letters to a very real friend of mine from days long ago. 


  1. Who is the artist of the painting of foot washing? Or in what publication can it be found?

    Thank you for your response.

    1. It is "Jesus Washing Peter's Feet" by Ford Madox Brown.
      Go to


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