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Maurice Timothy ReidyMarch 07, 2024
‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’ by Ford Madox Brown (1852-1856). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Reflection for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Find today’s readings here.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”

In a painting capturing this moment by the English artist Ford Madox Brown, Peter looks thoroughly puzzled.

Actually, that’s not the right word for it—truth be told, Peter looks annoyed. Jesus is washing his feet, and Peter is suffering through it. Hands folded in his lap, he is trying to be calm. But it is clear he does not understand what’s going on.

This adds an interesting wrinkle to the story. Reading the Gospel, one might think that Peter accepted Jesus’ explanation for why he chose to wash his feet. But the painting suggests another possibility: Peter allowed it to happen, but resented it from start to finish. To him, it would have been scandalous. A rabbi washing his student’s feet—it was just not done.

I like to think that it took some time for Peter to understand what this moment meant. It was probably one of the many moments he puzzled over after Jesus was killed—that and betraying his Lord so publicly. Did Peter grasp Jesus’ meaning after he rose from the dead? Or was the full meaning of Jesus’ words and actions something that Peter grappled with for the rest of his life?

What if, years later, maybe while walking from one village to the next, Peter suddenly realized why Jesus washed his feet. As my colleague James Martin, S.J., writes in his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Jesus was trying to make the point that service and leadership were inextricably linked. It was a radical idea, then and now. Maybe Peter only realized the full power of that moment much later.

In this and so many other ways, Peter is just like us. Peter did not understand what Jesus was doing, and Jesus was right in front of him. How much harder is it for us to understand what Jesus is trying to teach us? We do, however, have the example of Peter, someone who heard Jesus’s call, fought it, questioned it, but finally submitted himself to his Lord’s will.

St. Peter, pray for us.

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