Bernhard Strigel, “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” circa 1520
Bernhard Strigel’s painting of Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet illuminates for us the scene of the Last Supper. We meet Christ and the apostles gathered around a table set for the Passover meal—the roasted lamb and bitter herbs scattered on the tabletop tell us that they are celebrating the memorial feast described in the Exodus reading. The room is small, creating a sense of intimacy as the group gathers tightly around the table. Pieces of bread, small plates, knives, and the chalice are scattered messily on the table, telling us that the food has been enjoyed by the people here. The crumbs show us the human touch, clear signs of their engagement and participation.
Taking the theme of engagement to a deeper level, in the foreground we find Christ in the act of washing Peter’s feet. From the messy, post-meal table, Christ invites us into another mess—the dusty and worn feet of Peter, toes which he hesitantly points out from under his garment. Expressing profound love, service, and intimate communion, Christ reaches for these to wash them, shocking and humbling Peter, who will have to learn the lesson his Teacher has just modeled for him. Feet are our most humble part, closest to the ground, in constant touch with our utter humility of being dust. While Peter partially covers his feet, Christ’s foot is fully exposed, showing his embrace of humility and his determination on the way to the cross. In the back of the scene, John the Beloved Disciple hesitantly offers his own foot, almost touching Christ’s extended hand, signaling his loyalty and trust in the Lord.
Strigel was most famous as a portrait painter, and the expressions he captures on Christ, Peter, John, and Judas tell the story without words. Strigel also uses symbolic language to reinforce meaning: knives point to the chalice on the table and Judas, who is on the left, in yellow, holds a chalice that signals the suffering that is to come, evoking the cup of salvation and sacrifice. Other vessels also carry meaning: the basin under Peter’s foot is like a large paten, and like the platter under the lamb, reinforces the idea of sacrifice as essential to the Eucharistic act. On this Holy Thursday, our experiences of worship are also replete with symbols of intimate love, humility, self-giving service, and sacrifice. How do these speak to you today?
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
In Chapter 8 of Called to Be Catholic, young people read about and reflect on the virtues and the importance of service to others. In Strigel’s painting, Jesus shows the disciples that service to one another is the paramount expression of love for God. Point out to young people that the work of a parish community includes caring for and assisting those in need. Explain that parishes often have a variety of ways in which parishioners can be involved in works of mercy. Provide copies of your parish bulletin, and if possible, access to the parish Web site. Have young people research what opportunities exist to help others. Have pairs select one or two of the ministries or services and make a presentation to the class. Discuss how young people might become involved in these service groups. Encourage those interested to pursue available opportunities.