Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Face in the water

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the October 17, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky In a quiet corner of my study there hangs a simply-framed print of a painting by the contemporary German priest-artist, Father Sieger Köder. It depicts Jesus washing the feet of St. Peter at the Last Supper. Simple enough theme, but the presentation is unique. It is totally devoid of the familiar elements of Leonardo da Vinci’s traditional portrayal of this event. Father Köder offers a barefoot Jesus with his prayer-shawled back turned to the viewer; oddly, his face is not visible. No pulsating halo hints at a hidden divinity. All that is evident is a hunched, non-descript figure who is performing a menial, if not demeaning, task: washing a man’s feet.

A closer look at the scene reveals something quite cleverly executed – and forceful in its message. The face of Jesus is reflected in the vessel of water which holds the feet of the Apostle! It is clearly the face of a servant whose identity is lost in what he is doing – and whose true self is reflected in the action he is performing. Divine presence and service have become one. Observing the scene, one cannot but be struck by our Lord’s piercing reminder that the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve. Jesus and service are melded in intimate, unassuming union.

Preparation for a recent Sunday homily sent me to stand before Father Köder’s powerful scene with an especially inquisitive mind. The scene portrayed in the Gospel designated by the Church for our prayer that particular Sunday was far different from this Last Supper scene. But its insistent point about service was just as central and just as poignant. In the Gospel scene, Jesus raises the question about authenticity in discipleship. His conscience-piercing challenge to the leadership of his band of followers begins with a simple, self-answering query: “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?”

Well, in our culture we may well invite the janitor or gardener to share a meal with us – so something may be lost here in the cultural translation. But the heart which enters this scene with honesty cannot escape the impact of what is to follow. In Jesus’ day, an invitation to a household servant to share the evening meal would have been unthinkable! “Everyone” would have said exactly what Jesus himself notes: “Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?”

Of course we would say that to the servant! Especially if we thought we had achieved a status from which we expected him (or her) to meet our needs.

With a twist of perspective just as powerful as Father Köder’s reflection of Jesus’ face in the water, the Master turns the tables on his listeners. We are not the ones sitting at table, being waited upon. We, his disciples, are the servants come in from the field or the flock. The call to reality is found in Jesus’ summarizing words: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

After we have done all that is expected of us, we can only identify ourselves as “unprofitable servants.” That is to say, we are not to have engaged in our acts of service for personal gain, fame, fortune or recognition. We are not even to somehow subtly try to convince ourselves that others owe us some form of acknowledgement. We are not to draw attention to ourselves and our great achievements. We are servants: the doers of the things of the Gospel. Just servants. Nothing more; nothing less. Just servants.

Accepting that Scriptural challenge cuts to the heart of the Way of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve. It is one thing to acknowledge servanthood in theory, but living its reality is yet another. As disciples of Jesus, we are to be the first to serve – and to forget anything but. At no point should we complain than we have suffered the heat of the day, put in our time or, certainly not that we have gone above and beyond the call of duty. As in the cultural milieu of Jesus’ day, the servant’s life-style was a 24/7 proposition.

Sadly, the more we think we have achieved – in both Church and society – and the more independence we can claim, the less we tend to think first of serving. Certainly not 24/7. Upon reflection, it can be amazing to observe how we cut ourselves plenty of slack, paying ourselves for our goodness and accomplishments with a variety of subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, rewards. (Indeed, the sins of self-thankfulness would make for a good examination of conscience!) Achieving our status of success and possession, we can experience the temptation to expect others to wait on us, to be at our beck and call. We want our face to stand out, front and center, as we surround ourselves with those who tell us how great we look. Or, if we are not so brazen, our hearts grumble that at least others should pay us respect or acknowledge the good that we have done. The more superior status we achieve, Jesus seems to warn, the more we can brag only out of a false consciousness that destroys the heart and deadens the spirit. Has not Pope Francis challenged the entire Church in this regard – from hierarchs to peasants – reminding us all of the perils of thinking first of our selves, and what is owed us?

Both Father Köder’s painting and this particular Gospel scene summon us all to mull over the things we do, and, more importantly, why we do them. If we should think it is easy to be an authentic servant, we are only fooling ourselves. Just as we think we are achieving success at being humble and self-effacing, some action or comment betrays how much we still may yearn for reward and payment, expecting a card, a note, a gesture, a title, a plaque, or some other form of recognition of what we have done. We look up from our service with expectation, as it were, instead of letting our service itself reflect the One we seek to follow. Our face is not the one which should be seen, but the face of the Son of Man who came, not to be served, but to serve.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa, and serves the diocese as Moderator of the Curia.)

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