Fr Denis Browne
“In the course of his preaching John said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit ” (Mark 1:7-8).
I never understood the idea of “undoing the strap of his sandals” until I was on The Ferns Mission to Brazil. It was in a parish in the heart of The Amazon Basin. One day I arrived at a clearing in the forest accompanied by a Brazilian Religious Sister. We arrived at a little church with a Jeep full of passengers we had picked up along the dirt road. We celebrated the Monthly Mass after which we had our catechism classes (usually under a Mango Tree) and the Sister also a nurse held a small clinic in the now vacant church, weighing the children and advising on nourishment and health issues etc.
When these gatherings were over we were invited back to a family home further into the forest for lunch and the most important of all Brazilian activities “A Siesta” before hitting the long and difficult return journey.
While resting in the veranda of a little wooden house in a clearing, one of the teenage daughters came out with a basin of water and a towel and began to take off our sandals to wash our feet. I was mortified; and like St. Peter on the night of the Last Supper I objected, but the Sister informed me that this was a form of welcome to the house. Then I became more embarrassed at my objection. The mother came out and told us that this was the first time she had a priest and a nun in her house and to join her family for lunch, she felt so honoured to have us visiting that day. In the end it was I who felt honoured to be there and to share in their food and welcome!
Strangely after my feet were washed I felt really refreshed; a bit like inviting a visitor into an Irish home on a winter’s night and making a place for them at the fire and putting on the kettle as a sign that they are welcome. (From a practical point of view the washing of the feet also took away the smell!)
In the time of John the Baptist it wasn’t just anyone who washed the feet of a visitor, but rather it was the house slave and not just any house slave, but rather the lowliest of all the house slaves. So now I understand the objection of St. Peter to Jesus washing his feet on the night of the Last Supper. Jesus his Lord was doing the slaves job!
As Jesus said to Peter that Last Supper night: “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” John 13: 14-15
On this feast of The Baptism of Our Lord, we think of our own Baptism and the mandatory obligation of His Disciples washing the feet of others in acts of kindness and service which is the most important way we can put our own Baptism into practice. Since we have the same Spirit we also have the same strength to do what is good and right.
Interesting Note: The washing of the feet is called the “Mandatum” (Commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you”) from which “Mandatory” shares its’ roots.