On the morning of my college graduation, my fellow graduates and I gathered on the long shaded walkway leading to the auditorium. Inside, our family and friends were waiting; outside, the eager seniors mingled with the faculty, waiting to begin. At the signal, the professors lined both sides of the walkway and we the Class of 1995 started the procession. As we walked past them, our professors began to clap.
I wasn’t expecting their applause, and it blew my mind. We students had spent four years with these professors; we had discussed their brilliance in dorms and dining halls. To have these experts clapping for us felt like Bizarro World. At the same time, it felt like both an affirmation and a sending-forth. Their claps assured us: you have something to offer, and it’s time to take that something to the world.
In a similar way, the Apostles were not expecting Jesus to wash their feet. But with His gentle insistence, they accept that they need to grow beyond the image of how things used to be. They realize that they are on the threshold of a new reality, one in which they will be called to assume roles they thought only another person was qualified to fill. And through Jesus’s example, they learn that—paradoxically—one of the most important traits in a leader is humility.
Humility has many definitions, but I like to think of it as the recognition that everyone out there has something to teach you. Unless you are God, you need others to help fill in the gaps of wisdom that you don’t—can’t—possess. And when I consciously approach my high school students with the awareness that every one of them has something to teach me, it changes my interactions with them. I’m still the teacher, but I’m a teacher who respects that the other person’s perspective offers something I lack. When we do that, both parties end up stronger.
So it’s a wonderfully complex reading, this Holy Thursday Gospel. It’s a reminder that for each of us, there comes a time when we have to embrace a new vision of ourselves as someone who is qualified to lead others. But it also reminds us, with the indelible image of the basin of water and the bent head, that the wisest leaders are not afraid to be humble.
Think of someone you know. Approach your next interaction thinking, “What can I learn from this person?”
Ginny Kubitz Moyer is a mother, high school English teacher, and BBC period drama junkie. She is the author of Random MOMents of Grace: Experiencing God in the Adventures of Motherhood and Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God. Ginny lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two boys, and about thirty thousand Legos. You can find out more about her here.