Cleansing of feet a cleansing of hearts

Published September 1, 1998

The Lambeth Conference broke from its regular business halfway through the conference for a vigil.

Jean Vanier, founder and director of the L’Arche network of communities for people with learning disabilities, spoke during the vigil and led others in a foot-washing service. The son of Canada’s former governor-general, Georges, Mr. Vanier is well known as a teacher and writer on spirituality.

Here are excerpts from his address: B EFORE THE FESTIVAL of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his time had come to depart from this world and to return to the Father, having loved his own, he loved them fully, he loved them to the end. And then, in the middle of this rather solemn meal, he got up.

He fills a basin with water, puts a towel around his waist, and starts washing the feet of his disciples.

[ photo - David Harris ] Jean Vanier cleanses the feet of several people at the Lambeth Conference. Jesus did the same for his disciples as a way of showing them their bodies are a temple of God and each person is beautiful and loved and respected.


He comes to Peter to wash Peter’s feet. Peter looks at him, “You? Wash my feet?”

“You cannot understand now, you shall understand later.”

“No! You shall never wash my feet!”

You see, Peter has a sense of hierarchy. There are people at the top and people at the bottom. He is quite prepared to wash the feet of Jesus. That is quite a normal and natural situation. And he would probably like people to wash his feet. That is to say, he has a sense of what all our societies are about – the vision of a pyramid. There are a few people at the top, and an immense number right at the bottom. Those at the bottom are the useless ones – people with disabilities, people maybe who are mentally sick, people out of work, immigrants.

What is more surprising is the reaction of Jesus. “If I cannot wash your feet, you cannot share in the Kingdom. The Kingdom will no longer be part of your heritage. You are no longer my disciple.”

Jesus touched their bodies – a realization that each one is the temple of God. “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Spirit. The Spirit of God is living in you.”

I believe that Jesus must have touched these bodies with an immense respect and love and tenderness. He was revealing to them, in a special way, his love for them. But he also revealed to them that each one of them is beautiful, is chosen, and is loved. To continue this mission, which is his mission, to announce the good news to the poor, freedom to captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and to announce a year of grace and forgiveness.

When Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples, he is cleansing their feet to show that he wants to cleanse their hearts. But also, Jesus is there on his knees as a servant, as a slave – to be there for us.

He is teaching us how he wants us to exercise authority – not from the top of the pedestal, but close to people. Confirm them; call them forth; empower them; help them to grow to freedom in truth.

Jesus is reminding us that henceforth we must look downward. Because God is hidden in the weak, and the poor and the disabled. God is in the Body. He is saying, “be attentive to the littlest, to the weakest, to the poorest, to those who are the most broken; for I am living there.”

We want to be in communion – one with another. We love each other. We may have divergences in vision, divergences in theological questions. This is normal. We come from cultures and backgrounds that are very different. Each one of us, we have our character traits.

So Jesus is saying something about communion – how to be with each other with words that are not flowing from our woundedness, our darkness, and our need for power and superiority, but from a desire for oneness. And oneness is not exclusion of difference. Oneness is not fusion.

We are all called to be small. “The camel cannot go through the eye of the needle.” But we who carry authority and power, in some way we are called to be like little children. And we are called to serve each other in rectitude and in truth as Jesus. And as we become small, then maybe we can go through the eye of the needle.


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