John 13: Wrong Summit?

So apparently mountaineers encounter this challenge of false summits. They think they’re climbing to the summit of a mountain, and when they break through the clouds to get to the top of where they are climbing, they realize that it’s not really the highest point. The next thing over is taller. (Sometimes, apparently, this can happen repeatedly, where each peak yields to an even higher one. As someone whose only mountain adventures are Space, Thunder and occasionally Splash, I think mountaineers are nuts to fall for that trick more than once.)

I was thinking that I would be writing tonight on the Eucharist, but John threw another curveball.

What if Christians picked the wrong thing to make their central sacrament? What if we have the wrong summit?

The Catholic Church in the US recently launched a multi-year campaign to re-emphasize the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of our faith, which I am almost all for. The impetus for this was a Pew survey that showed that only a minority of Catholics actually believe that the Eucharist is what the Church says it is (the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread and wine). I suspect my political friends will see some potential pitfalls in investing millions of dollars in a campaign to respond to one poll, but let’s set that aside for now. Regardless of what Pew says, it’s pretty clear that a bunch of people who are either modestly active or fallen-away Catholics don’t seem super motivated by the opportunity to commune with God in the Eucharist, so I can see why the Bishops would want to change that. 

And as the global Church goes through its own multi year journey of listening for the Holy Spirit, I was ready to argue that highlighting the faith we have in common (like in the Eucharist), might help us contextualize and understand the relatively unimportant nature of our differences as we yearn for unity. (Even if most of the popular discussion of the Eucharist is around who particular bishops are threatening to withhold it from.)

But John 13 throws a curveball. Because the core action in Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples is not the institution of the Eucharist. It’s something else.

On Holy Thursday, the Thursday of Easter Week, Catholics around the world (and some other folks) celebrate what Jesus does in John 13. The priest (or priests) wash the feet of some representative parishioners. (Except for Pope Francis, who goes to wash the feet of people like Muslim prisoners, to push the point of who God loves beyond the front pews.) It’s awkward, and I think most people are happy not to be the ones who have to have their feet washed, and generally we get through it and get back to normal Catholic stuff as quickly as we can. Like the Eucharist.

But what if that foot washing were the daily-repeated main event, instead of the supper?

After Jesus washes the disciples’ feet in John 13 (including Judas, I might add), he tells them that the main thing he wants for them to do is love one another. And whatever the foot-washing means, it is a humbling sign of loving care for each other. 

If we’re worried that people aren’t as excited about being Catholic, or Christian, as they used to be, maybe we should ask whether we picked the wrong example from Jesus’ life to make into a daily exercise.  If a community committed itself each week, and maybe even each day, to commemorating God’s guidance to love each other by washing each other’s feet, would it have the same problems convincing people that it was worth joining and sticking with? It probably wouldn’t struggle to convince people that they cared about each other, and they might not fight to be at the top of a power pyramid if that meant, primarily, washing everyone else’s smelly size 12s.

Would making that practice our apex of communal worship be a higher summit? I don’t know. I’m glad we celebrate the Eucharist more than once a year because I need all the supernatural help I can get. But I bet the Church would look different if we focused more on washing each others’ feet than about who gets to eat at the table. 

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