I spent Holy Week of 2010 in Haiti with Fr. Tom Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who has been working in the worst slum in Port-au-Prince for more than 20 years. The following reflection is a scene from my film Mud Pies & Kites.
When I met Fr. Tom on Holy Thursday, he seemed a bit down. He told me that some gang members from Cité Soleil had threatened to kill two of his top staff people, both Haitians and reformed gang members, as well as the security guard at the compound. It is all impossible to fathom. Living with the destruction and profound need is hard enough, but adding the element of vengeful violence intensifies the situation to the breaking point. Yet, Fr. Tom still has this gentle calmness about him…softly walking through an endless valley of death, fearing nothing, his eyes fixed on God. It took Fr. Tom two days to defuse the threat of violence.
Hundreds of people attended the Holy Thursday liturgy. Their joyful spirit of prayer and worship was on full display before Fr. Tom even had a chance to welcome them. Before the liturgy actually began, all in attendance were fed a meal. Fr. Tom assisted in distributing the food. For me, the most impactful moment was when Fr. Tom washed the feet of the poor. I had anticipated that a few people would come up near the altar and he would wash their feet as representatives of the gathered community. But no, that is not what happened.
When it came time for the foot washing, Fr. Tom got down on his knees and crawled along the concrete floor from person to person seated in the long, front row, removing their shoes and lovingly washing and drying their feet. Most of the people in the front row were old. It was inspiring to watch Fr. Tom struggling to move from person to person, clearly in some degree of discomfort from the heat, the hard ground and the sheer physical exertion. He washed at least fifty pairs of feet.
In the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus we begin to learn about true sacrifice and true servanthood. God is not interested in human or animal sacrifice. Nor is God interested in the sacrifice of fasting from certain foods on certain days. The sacrifice that God seeks is the letting go of all that is ungodly within us, the letting go of our ego, the false self that always puts ourselves first. To “pass over” from an ego-centered life to a God-centered life, from a self-centered life to another-centered life, requires a sacrificial surrendering of all that binds us, all that needs to die, so we can walk freely into the mystery of God.
Suffering and sharing are the gateways to divine intimacy. And to become intimate with God means to become the humble and loving servant of all. By washing the feet of another, God’s love moves from an abstract theory into a concrete reality.
Jesus came to be a servant, to sacrifice himself for us. We must do likewise, by sacrificing ourselves and serving others.