244. Saint Augustine on Foot-Washing and Christus Humilis


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 13:3-5, NRSV]

 Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles, by Giotto di Bondone 1304-1306

On every Holy Thursday, instead of presenting to us one of the Synoptic Gospel stories of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.

Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is the flip side to the often over-emphasized and over-worked “institution” narrative and the consequent doctrine of “Real Presence”. On this holy night of “institution”, as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic common bond was created with his disciples. This was a bond infused with a spirit of mutual forgiveness and acceptance, mutual respect and love. Then the voice of God is heard, “As I have done for you, so you must also do to each other.”

John the Fourth Gospel is saying to all who would follow Christ that while they must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, they must never forget his kingdom-building admonition to go out and serve the world. Christians come to church services, to be graced and blessed with Christ’s presence amongst them, so that they may go out to share that grace and be a blessing to everyone that they meet. Saint Augustine emphasizes this servant attitude for our benefit.

According to Augustine, human pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem begins with imitating the humble Christ (Christus humilis). Christ the humble physician heals the wounds caused by pride with the medicine of humility. Christ is the master of humility.

How does Christ’s humility heal?

First, Christ’s humility heals by contrast. God creates with power and saves with humility. So we see a strong and a weak Jesus: his strength created us, but his weakness created us anew; he fashioned us by his strength, but he sought us by his weakness. Pride being the cause and fountainhead of all diseases, the Son of God became humble in order that pride might be healed. Christ’s humility cleanses, purifies and heals, and is the antidote to human pride.

Second, Christ as Mediator between God and humans is rooted in his humility. As Mediator, he reconciles through humility all that divides God and humanity. The death of Christ in humility on the cross is the culmination of the humble pathway to God and carries the promise of our redemption. Through Christ’s humility, the eternal God descends to our mortality in order to invite our ascent to immortality.

Third, the humility of Christ is thus a kenosis, a self-emptying love. The christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 brings out the extent of Christ’s humility and sacrifice. It profoundly expresses the willing sacrifice and surrender of Jesus Christ, who despite his glorious pre-existence, came to earth in human form (his incarnation) in order to carry out his mission of redemption. While on earth he obediently endured humiliation, even the ultimate humiliation and degradation of crucifixion. This obedience is rewarded with sublime exaltation that commands universal worship.

  • The humility of Christ’s kenosis and his self-emptying love runs right through from his incarnation to his passion. His death is the completion of the kenosis first revealed in the Word made flesh. The abasement of Christ in the form of servant is the road of humility and exaltation. Seeking the glory of the Father and not his own, he was finally exalted at the resurrection and made Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This testifies to a close connection between humiliation and exaltation – those who are humble shall be exalted. To be sure, the humility of Christ is not only one moment or one act, but it is a persistent and permanent progression into self-emptying love. Facing the cross in obedience to the Father’s will to live  a beautiful, noble and humble life, the humiliation of Christ reveals the glory and the divine power inside his self-emptying act.

Fourth, the humbled Christ has become the model of humility, the source of Christian behaviour. So he left behind the powerful gesture of humility through foot-washing as an act of fraternal love. The humility of Christ being the fundamental virtue of Christian life, the imitation of the humble Christ at foot-washing serves as a reminder – “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19); “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

  • Augustine refers to Peter who trembled in fear when Jesus wanted to wash his feet. He was terrified to see the humbled Christ at his feet; he could not bear it. And yet, Jesus’ gesture is not only a sign, but also an example, for Jesus came to teach humility. So Peter, and all who came after him, shall have to learn to be servants, after the example of Christ.

Christians do not have to climb up a mountain to be near God, forgetting that God is closest to those who are humble. Christians ought not seek high positions, especially those of power, prestige and privileges, for God exalts the lowly and brings crashing down the high and mighty. Augustine suggests to us to come down to the lowness, for there we shall find the real presence of the once marginalized and now exalted Lord and Christ. Is it any wonder that Pope Francis, who truly understands that there is no humility without humiliation, never tires of exhorting us to return to the Christ of the Gospels? And then, on this very day, we would see him leave to others the high-visibility church-service at St Peter’s Basilica where there is no lack of media attention, and go low-key to wash and kiss the feet of society’s rejects,  women included, in a small prison somewhere.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, March 2020. All rights reserved.

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