Last Holy Thursday, I celebrated the foot-washing ceremonies at the Montfort Youth Training Centre in Sabah. There are about 150 young guys training there and they sang the Holy Week Hymns with all their hearts and their singing evoked the memory of a very different foot-washing ceremony many years previously – that took place not in a Church but at the entrance of a longhouse.
When I first arrived in Sarawak in the 1970s, there were very few roads and most of our travelling was done by boat or on foot and on one such journey, I visited an upriver longhouse in the Balingian area. It was my first visit to that house and to get there we had to go by boat a good deal of the way, but then we had to walk through thick forest for the last hour or so. So, when we arrived I was looking forward to a place where I could rest, but as I reached the doorway and was preparing to enter, someone said, “Not yet, please, Father, wait a moment”. So I sat on a log by the door and not long afterwards, the Headman appeared with a bowl of water and knelt in front of me to wash my feet, for in the tiredness from the journey I had not noticed that there was mud on them. It did not take long and then the man looked up into my eyes, gave me a deep smile and said, “You are welcome, Father”, and I felt very welcome especially as he then took my hand and led me to the sitting place in the longhouse.
As I pondered on that memory, I realised that it could be taken as a parable, in miniature, of our redemption – I was looking for a place where I could feel at home and had arrived at such a place, but before I could enter, the Master of the house had to wash the dirt from my feet, so that I could enter with dignity. But then I was drawn deeper into that memory and I realised that the real treasure of the story was the smile of welcome – for without that smile, the foot-washing would not have been a parable. Had the man come with the bowl of water, but without a smile and maybe also grumbling about people who do not know better than to enter houses with dirty feet – then his action would have been a reproach, not a welcome.
One of the deepest truths of our Faith is the saying “Ubi caritas…” – “wherever there is friendship and love, there is God”. An action which leads us into friendship with others and so also with God is a “good action”, but an action which is done without kindness – without a smile – may be a “righteous action” but if it does not lead us into friendship it is not of God. Some people get a little frightened of this, for it seems to suggest that I am saying that only kindness matters and rules and laws can be dispensed with – but that is not what I am saying. Laws and rules show us the path into friendship and love – but they have to point beyond themselves in order to do that and so it is possible to obey all the rules and still not find our way into friendship – witness the Pharisees in so many Gospel stories. However, if I look at someone with friendship and kindness, I am hardly likely to kill him, steal from him, cheat him or lie about him. Kindness therefore stands as the guarantee that what I do is of God.
We sometime overlook that there are two parts to our task of being Gospel messengers – there is the “what” and there is also the “how”, as my memory of the headman washing my feet shows – the “what” was the washing of my feet; the “how” was the smile which transformed the action into an expression of friendship and welcome. I believe that Christ teaches us this distinction in John 14, when Thomas says that they do not know the way to where Jesus is going, he answers, “I am the way the truth and the life”. ”What” we do as we try to be faithful to Christ will depend on time and circumstances, but the “how” must always be the loving, gentle understanding “way” in which Christ treats each one of us. Unless we speak and act with gentleness and love our words and actions cannot become Christ’s words and action – because he cannot fit into them; he cannot live in us through them!
All our actions and words as members of Christ’s Church receive their power of welcome through the looks we give people as we speak to them, greet them, distribute communion to them, for through our smiles and friendship we enable them to recognise the Christ who stands before them. The work of salvation in the Church is truly the work of Christ and his only, but the way in which we share in his work, the kindness and friendship with which we greet people and speak the Word to them, can enable them to receive what he wishes to give them in a far more fruitful way. In other words, a smile can change a ritual act into a wonderful experience of friendship and love as I learnt, when my feet were being washed at the door to that longhouse many years ago.
Fr Terry Burke
Today’s Catholic Vol.29 No.3 June 2017
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