She Washed His Feet

Cambridge, MA. There are many ways to interpret the great and solemn events of Holy Thursday, and preachers around the world take up different themes, ranging from the spiritual to the ecclesial to the political. I was privileged to preach at this year’s Holy Thursday liturgy in my parish, and I was struck by a simple point, obvious once you finally notice it: John 13 follows John 12; Jesus washes the feet of his disciples only a few days after Mary (not the Magdalene but sister of Martha) anointed his feet with a costly and fragrant perfume.

The scene at the Last Supper is memorable and familiar: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…” (John 13) John sees this unprecedented action — not a traditional part of the sacred meal — as expressive of Jesus’ unlimited, unfathomable love — “to the end” the ultimate reach — and also as an instruction in the way the community is to live, serving one another in the same way.


But it is, I think, also his more intimate and personal response to and imitation of a powerful scene recorded in the previous chapter of the Gospel: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’” (John 12)

As he was loved, overwhelmingly and with abandon by Mary, Jesus learned an extravagant and unbounded way to express, as it were sacramentally, his love for those gathered at table. He had no precious perfume, his hair was not long enough, perhaps, that he could have used it for the drying, but still, he knelt as did Mary, did the humble and unexpected act, as did Mary.

In both scenes, Judas disrupts the moment. At Mary’s house, he is scandalized at the lavishness of this inappropriate display, and at the prospect of losing all that money. At the Last Supper, he is perhaps disturbed by so stark a manifestation of love — for his feet too are washed — and soon afterwards he rushes from the room, into the night. In Chapter 12, Jesus’ response to Judas defends Mary’s prodigality in light of his coming death, for the day of his burial; in Chapter 13, he admonishes Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

But we can in closing turn to the parallel scene in Mark, to catch the remarkable word of Jesus to the community on what this single woman has been able to do and what we should do in return: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14)

Perhaps we should remember her every Holy Thursday, this woman too often missing from the Church's selective remembrance of its beginnings?


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david power
6 years 9 months ago
Wonderful meditations on Jesus and his teacher.
I read once about the symbolism of feet in the Holy land of that time when it was customary to give a guest some water to wash their feet after they had travelled a long distance.
The Lord of course goes one further and takes it upon himself to wash those feet after he had been captured by the gesture of Mary.
Don Giussani once described the origins of the Eucharist as a mad idea that popped into the head of Jesus.
He just had it on the spur of the moment as he quite clearly did so here.Spontaneous.
A spontaneity more or less extinguished in our Church.  
Don Giussani again (I am like a parrot) said that "to be moral is to love".
By this definition Mary Magdelene in this instance  is a moral woman and of course Judas is immoral .
But Judas should also be in our thoughts and we should perhaps  feel closer to him than to Mary.The Church conceives itself as Magdalenlike when really it is Judaslike.Cunning and hypocritcal but chosen by Jesus nonetheless.
As he fastens the rope to his neck we can only marvel at Jesus and pray that Buchanan was right in his Ballad of Judas Iscariot. 
6 years 9 months ago
I liked Father Clooney’s insightful meditation, right for any week, not just Holy Week. At  the Last Supper, or what I like better, as the First Eucharist, Jesus told the assembled people in the Upper Room, that one who has bathed need only to wash  feet  to be clean. Walking in sandaled  feet, or even barefooted on existing roads, guaranteed dirty feet. So when Jesus got to Lazarus’ house for dinner his feet must have been pretty dusty. Maybe when he arrived for dinner his feet were washed by a servant, a common courtesy by the Host. Or did Mary do the washing before the anointing   with expensive nard, drying them with her hair? Jesus appreciated Mary’s affection, and explained to the guests the meaning of it all. But it must have left Mary’s hair looking pretty oily. A “bad hair day” for her one might say! But obviously,  overcoming  normal feminine self  respect, even perhaps, a degree of understandable vanity,  she didn’t mind how she looked, so deeply committed to Jesus was she!  
We should be the same way as we wash and anoint Jesus’ feet, a task accomplished in any number of ways and it doesn’t have to involve feet! Like when a homeless man gave me a tight hug on a sidewalk in full view of many, saying “thanks” for he lousy quarter I had given him!
Rather than returning his hug I tried to pull away, driven by what  I see as the sin of Human Respect, which is the human tendency to  worry about what people might  say, avoiding as a result  doing the right thing, something always  pleasing to God. The homeless man gave me all he had – his love and also his body odor on my clothing! I washed away the odor but I will never be able to wash away his love. And like Mary I will always try to wash away with tears of repentance and the nard of selfless service, especially towards the sick or handicapped, my insensitivity, imitating that homeless man who washed my feet on a NYC sidewalk by his love, willingly “washing feet” no matter which form it takes!
Kay Satterfield
6 years 9 months ago
Thank you Fr. Clooney, this is a beautiful reflection that gives new insights to me of how Mary who expressed her love for Jesus so openly most likely influenced Jesus in calling all of us to wash each other's feet in love and service.


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