Lent passed, and Holy Week came. That year, the love of Christ inflamed the holy King’s heart more than ever. At times he would spend the whole night in contemplation of the sorrows that Our Lord suffered to redeem us; he slept so little that his nobles, worried, reached the point of telling him that he should take better care of himself and not endanger his health in that way. After all, his last illness was still quite recent.
The King let them talk, but when they had finished, he replied with a smile: “If I did not watch, how could you sleep in confidence?” And so he continued his long vigils.
The Thursday of the Last Supper dawned. It was the custom in the palace to give daily the same delicacies served at the royal table to all the poor who would appear, and Don Ferdinand would many times serve the meal personally and prepare their plates. This was done with such joy and gracefulness that he would win their hearts. But that Holy Thursday, upon entering the room where the poor waited, he called twelve, one by one, the oldest and most ragged of them all, and made them sit on a long wooden bench, which was close to the wall. Then he ordered a servant, “Gil, go and bring me a washtub with warm water and a towel, the cleanest and whitest you can find.”
The young man went to fetch what had been requested, racking his brain on the way trying to guess what the King wanted them for. The same perplexity was seen on the nobles’ faces. What was he going to do? Ferdinand in the meantime with a joyful countenance talked with the beggars, who were exaggerating with great detail their many sufferings.
Gil returned with the washtub and a clean, white towel. The King took off his mantle, his sword belt, and his outercoat; then stood up in his tunic; rolled his sleeves up to the elbow; and took the towel and placed it around his waist. He then took the washbowl and knelt in front of the first old man and began to wash with his royal hands, so clean and beautiful, those repulsive feet that had perhaps never seen any other water than that of the dirty puddles on the street.
The King’s action took all so unaware that the surprise left them speechless and paralyzed. When they recovered, many of them had tears of emotion in their eyes. The poor broke forth in blessings for the most humble King yet known to Christianity. But Ferdinand told them that what should truly astonish them was that God washed away our sins with His Blood. This he said with conviction from the bottom of his heart; in fact, he seemed hardly aware of what he was saying or that he was in his palace hall. For that moment, he forgot he was the King; the whole world had disappeared for him; only a Cenacle remained where His Lord and King Jesus Christ knelt before twelve poor sinners and washed their feet; he seemed to hear the words of that commandment of humble love: “Exemplum dedit vobis, ut et vos ita faciatis.”*
Sr. Maria del Carmen Fernández de Castro Cabeza, The Life of the Very Noble King of Castile and León, Saint Ferdinand III (Mount Kisco, NY: The Foundation for a Christian Civilization, 1987), 196-7.
* “He gave you the example, so go and do likewise.”
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 572