I taught at St Henry’s Marist College in Durban, South Africa for 16 years. At the start of every year, we took the senior class away on a leadership camp. On the last night, after supper, we gathered in the main hall. Pupils and teachers sat in a circle with candles lighting the gloom. We read John’s account of the washing of the feet and then the headmaster or another member of the school’s management team would take a towel and bowl of water, kneel at the feet of one of the pupils and wash their feet, speaking the words “now do likewise”.
This late summer liturgy of service was carried out in silence as we washed each other’s feet, a physical reminder to the pupils that the closing act of the Last Supper encompassed the totality of our Lord’s three years of teaching, namely, that we are always and forever called to serve.
I remember that a young Redemptorist priest, who was an ‘Old Boy’ of the school, told us at one of those evenings that with a towel and bowl of water we would literally change the world. His message was deeply rooted in our African philosophy of Ubuntu which says “I am because we are” – a philosophy that demands that we are called to always recognize and protect the full humanity of the person whose feet we wash.
On this night, as we leave darkened churches with altars stripped bare, we approach the journey to the garden, the oppressors’ palace, a hill of execution and an empty tomb, we say to each other with the Zulu greeting “Sawubona”, meaning “I see you”.
I see you with all of your worries and troubles, all of your joys and victories and, in seeing you, I kneel down, take up the bowel of water first used during a Passover meal in Jerusalem, and wash your feet.