He putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them
with the towel wherewith he was girded (John xiii. 5).
There are three things which this can be taken to symbolise.
1. The pouring of the water into the basin is a symbol of the pouring out of His blood upon the earth. Since the blood of Jesus has a power of cleansing it may in a sense be called water. The reason why water, as well as blood, came out of His side, was to show that this blood could wash away sin.
Again we might take the water as a figure of Christ’s Passion. He putteth water into a basin, that is, by faith and devotion He stamped into the minds of faithful followers the memory of His Passion. Remember my poverty, and transgression, the wormwood and the gall (Lam. iii. 19).
2. By the words and began to wash it is human imperfection that is symbolised. For the Apostles, after their living with Christ, were certainly more perfect, and yet they needed to be washed, there were still stains upon them. We are here made to understand that no matter what is the degree of any man’s perfection he still needs to be made more perfect still; He is still contracting uncleanness of some kind to some extent. So in the Book of Proverbs we read, Who can say My heart is clean, I am pure from sin (Prov. xx. 9).
Nevertheless the Apostles and the just have this kind of uncleanness only in their feet.
There are however others who are infected, not only in their feet, but wholly and entirely. Those who make their bed upon the soiling attractions of the world are made wholly unclean thereby. Those who wholly, that is to say, with their senses and with their wills, cleave to their desire of earthly things, these are wholly unclean.
But they who do not thus lie down, they who stand, that is, they who, in mind and in desire, are tending towards heavenly things, contract this uncleanness in their feet. Whoever stands must, necessarily, touch the earth at least with his feet. And we, too, in this life, where we must, to maintain life, make use of earthly things, cannot but contract a certain uncleanness, at least as far as those desires and inclinations are concerned which begin in our senses.
Therefore Our Lord commanded His disciples to shake off the dust from their feet. The text says, ” He began to wash,” because this washing away on earth of the affection for earthly things is only a beginning. It is only in the life to come that it will be really complete.
Thus by putting water into the basin, the pouring out of His blood is signified, and by His beginning to wash the feet of His disciples the washing away of our sins.
3. There is symbolised finally Our Lord’s taking upon Him the punishment due to our sins. Not only did He wash away our sins but He also took upon Himself the punishment that they had earned. For our pains and our penances would not suffice were they not founded in the merit and the power of the Passion of Christ. And this is shown in His wiping the feet of the disciples with the linen towel, that is the towel which is His body. (In John xiii.)