ALAN MOWBRAY SJ writes on the relationship between service and reconciliation, and how we can play our part and imitate a humble Christ in reaching out to each other.
A two-year child loves exploring and will try its luck by walking along a church bench but slips off, falls and cries. The father picks up the child in his arms, soothes and comforts. The parents have set boundaries for their child yet cannot wrap the child in cotton wool for every adventure. They know that the child's exploring may lead to tears but are nearby to heal the bruises. The child somehow knows this even before his adventure begins.
It is well to begin with a family's experience and our need for reconciliation because we learn mostly about forgiveness in the home. However, our need for reconciliation takes many forms and includes our serious divisions in society. The President of St Vincent de Paul has spoken of the divisions that are re-emerging as we slowly come out of austerity. We were bound more together in those hard times. Now he notes the rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind. This points to the social dimension of reconciliation that are matters of justice.
Sadly, the poor are seen as statistical units or as an economic factor. Think of the family's tragic experience described below and ask whether to describe them as a ‘unit’ or ‘factor’ touches their real needs. Like peeling an onion, each level of their experience recounts a deeper need, not addressed by a poll, a survey, nor an economic graph.
A Boy Distressed
Darren's (not his true name) mother died when he was seven-years-old. His father had married again and threw the older siblings out of house and home but kept his youngest, Darren, who still grieved for his mother. With them out of the way, the father's abuse of the nine-year-old could begin in earnest. By the age of fifteen, the abuse was so rampant that Darren ran away. He became homeless since hostels for men were unsafe places for his age group. His trust of the adult world was zero. Later, he set up a tent on the Royal Canal and fell in with a drug-taking group. He overdosed. His group called for an ambulance.
My Heart Fails
At the funeral Mass, the father never looked up once and sat in the outer row. At least you could say the father had arrived at guilt. The siblings grieved in the front seats. The fifteen-year-old, now a twenty-year-old, had never sorted out his confusion: yes, for him as son, his father was his dad, yet he knew that this same father had destroyed him. ‘Emotional dying’ was the real cause of death. Reconciliation was never going to grow in time to enter the father's heart of stone, nor the son's.
Walk on the Other Side?
We witness today and everyday a world steeped in violence where reconciliation is hard won, if at all. It seems to lie beyond our grasp. We say God came to save us but our culture thinks that ‘saving’ has to do with being a top goalie pulling off great saves. Secondly, this style of language seems to leave everything up to God. The opposite is true. He calls us to get involved. To bring us into the picture, we have a step to take: do we want to reconcile ourselves with one another as well as with God? Now the circle is complete: God reconciling us and us to one another. He used a special sign to tell his first Christians about this new value.
A Gesture with Meaning
The Lord sought to ensure his followers of his constant love and forgiveness even before the bleak days of his Passion had taken hold of them all. To the amazement of the twelve disciples, Jesus washed their feet all the while knowing that they will desert him in an hour or two. He wants to show them that despite the suffering to come, he ’always loved those who were his own in the world’. He even tells them that they will not understand the full meaning of his gesture until later on. It is one thing to forgive a person after a break in the relationship; it is another to reassure and forgive someone even before the break-up occurs.
The local custom in Palestine was to wash a visitor's feet when entering a house. It was good manners to clean the sand and dust caught up in their guest's sandals. A servant did this work. Christ gave this custom a new meaning. He changed it into an act of humble service and reconciliation.
Jesus knows the disciples' feet will soon be running away from him but his gesture is to assure them of his love and forgiveness. Later, they will need to recall his gesture when it dawns on them how badly they had let him down. The crunch had come and fear had mastered their feet. My effort at reconciling with someone whom I have offended becomes more possible when I know I am loved and already forgiven. We have to only recall to mind the Prodigal Son returning home to find his forgiving father standing on the hill waiting for him!
Hands and Feet
Evie Hone, the Irish stained glass artist, created a window of the Last Supper with the Washing of the Feet. What is striking is how she drew the hands and feet larger than normal.
Returning to the table, he puts the towel aside and makes a request: "I have given you an example - you are to do the same". We carry on this tradition as servants of one another, as ‘a Church of the poor, for the poor’ that Pope Francis talks about. We do not manipulate others for our own selfish interests; we draw the best out of them. We place ourselves at the service of others rather than have them serve us. We honour those who care for special needs people rather than just celebrate the powerful. It really challenges our values to follow in the Lord's ways.
One who Reconciles
Taking the path of reconciliation, we will hear the voice of God calling us back to him. Once we take the step to reconcile with another person, it reminds us that we are not God but that we stand in need of God. If we can only see a judgemental God that condemns or if we are caught in a culture that bears grudges, then we will be unable to see the humble Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Our care for a vulnerable person changes us. At the beginning, we think that we are serving them but later we realise that they are changing us. It is their acceptance of our care. It is their humble silence as we tend their wound. Their glance of thanks invites us to grasp the wonder that is hidden behind building bridges of reconciliation.