Published April 13, 2006
The scene is dramatic. In St. John’s Gospel, after a supper with friends, Jesus gets up, ties a towel around His waist and starts washing their feet.
You no doubt remember Peter’s stunned reaction (13:8). “You shall never wash my feet!”
This is completely understandable, since Peter had such respect for Jesus, and the act of washing feet was the humble act of a servant, not one who was called “Teacher.”
As His death approaches, Jesus washes His friends’ feet to give them a down-to-earth example of self-sacrificial love.
Jesus said, time and again, that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. And on this night, He gave the disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
The disciples would not know, of course, until Jesus’ trial and execution later in the week, that He was referring to a love that gives everything. And that includes one’s own life.
It is an understatement to say that it is extremely difficult to love others as Jesus has loved us.
For one thing, many of us don’t love ourselves in a healthy fashion, so how shall we love others?
This struggle with love has been lifelong for me. As a child, I experienced abandonment by the person I adored most in the world, my mother.
She, of course, didn’t know my feelings, and I was too young to verbalize them, but when she walked out the door, morning after morning, year after year, leaving me to the mercies of a string of babysitters, I chalked that up as abandonment.
In later years, like so many children, I was the daily target of other children’s cruelty, because I was fat and awkward. Instead of learning healthy defenses, I took the criticism to heart and became the proverbial misfit.
My story is not unique. Many adults are walking around with wounded hearts from childhood and reliving things that happened 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
As a result, we have trouble loving other people because, on a deep level, we don’t feel that we ourselves are cherished.
I became aware of how deeply rooted my problems with love are when my sister failed to call me back for two days when I had a minor illness.
Reliving old feelings of childhood abandonment, I reacted with inappropriate anger toward her until, fortunately, God intervened.
He gave me the grace to see that I was acting completely out of proportion to any “offense.”
God helped me see that my anger was not directed at my sister but instead at the people who had disappointed me, over and over, in childhood. And so I was able to ask her forgiveness for acting like such a dolt.
If Jesus were to walk into the room today and start to wash my feet, I confess that I would be surprised that He was showing any interest in me at all.
This is the cross that is picked up daily and carried by melancholy people who never feel accepted—or loved.
We can’t get it through our thick heads that anyone truly cares about us, whether it is a friend, spouse, sister, priest—or God.
We are the ones who often have an image of God as an angry old man in the sky, who carries a ledger in which he records our sins.
As a result, we often do things out of guilt rather than love and feel we can never do enough to win others’ approval.
We also show up at church on Sunday absolutely dying for a sermon that will remind us that God loves us.
The apostles didn’t realize the full depths of Jesus’ love until He was arrested, beaten, thrown overnight into an underground cell and made a public spectacle of as He carried His cross.
They grasped the astonishing depths of His love as He died in agony.
At that point, they must have finally understood what He was talking about the night before, when He said, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
Many people struggle to imitate that crucial self-sacrificing element of Christ-like love. As Christians, we want to love others so much that we would die for them.
This love, however, poses an especially keen challenge for those who rarely had childhood needs met. After all, for those who were abused, neglected, abandoned, mocked or beaten, love was a word spoken but not an emotion ever felt.
It would be tempting to despair and give up on the challenge of Christianity altogether. But Jesus came to save the world, and that includes the people who never seem to get the love thing right.
And during Holy Week, as we walk with Him to the cross, we can ask Him to do something that only He can do for us.
We can ask Him to heal the shattered hearts that we carry around within us. For some, the heart was crushed in infancy, for others in teen years, and for others in adulthood.
As for me, I spent years running from therapist to therapist, until I finally realized that the only real healing I would ever find would be in the arms of Jesus Christ.
Each year, during Holy Week, I reflect on the words from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which remind us of what Jesus did for us: “The cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day …”
All this was done out of love for us. Even more amazing, it was done for me.
Lorraine’s Murray’s latest book, “How Shall We Celebrate?” (Resurrection Press) includes reflections on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and other seasons of the liturgical year. Her books can be ordered at local bookstores or on her Web site: www.lorrainevmurray.com. Artwork by Jef Murray.