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Super Bowl ‘ad failed to capture’ foot-washing, Holy Week message

Mario Nicolais

During the Super Bowl last month, a Christian organization ponied up millions of dollars for a commercial that confused more people than it inspired. That is too bad, during this Holy Week, which began with Palm Sunday.

Funded by the “He Gets Us” group, the ad is a series of still images focused on one person washing the feet of another. It was their attempt to highlight a central theme from my favorite liturgical day of the year, Maundy Thursday. It is the celebration of the Last Supper and includes Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

The message is powerful and poignant, but the ad failed to capture it.

Relying on some cringeworthy stereotypes (e.g. a Black man and police officer or a Native American and cowboy), the commercial probably fell flat for anyone not steeped in Christian religious teachings. It seemed a bit odd and forced.

Coming from the same people who made ads pointing out that Christ was a refugee and a rebel, He Gets Us came in for criticism because of the source of its funds and paying so much money for marketing rather than charitable purposes. But they did spark conversation about the underlying message.

That is a message much of the world could benefit from.

The past decade has seen more and more conflict. Whether political conflict in terms of hardening partisanship or violent conflict in the U.S. Capitol, in Ukraine and across Israel/Gaza. The constant strife does no one good and leads to further disillusionment and angst.

In that environment any message overlooking differences and focusing on serving each other should be welcomed. While this one is based on Christian doctrine, it applies universally. Treating each other with kindness and respect seems like a simple goal, but can be difficult to achieve.

Much of the difficulty is because, just as with foot washing, it takes more than one person. You may be ready to serve someone else, but if they are not willing to accept (much less reciprocate), nothing comes from the gesture.

That means trust and faith must come into play. And maybe that means even some of the clunky visuals actually come off.

For example, the image of a priest washing the feet of someone in the LGBTQ+ community. The shot is awfully reductive, but there are many priests who have opposed any acceptance of anyone outside heteronormative traditions. Even Pope Francis, who has used his papacy to advocate for change that welcomes LGBTQ+ people, has had to work constantly against high-ranking members of the Catholic Church.

Of course, there were more subtle, moving images, too.

A young woman sitting on a kitchen floor, forehead to forehead with an older woman (maybe her mother) surrounded by bottles of alcohol moved me. People suffering from substance use disorders frequently suffer from loneliness and judgment as secondary consequences. Being together and caring for someone struggling in such a state can be the most important act in their lives. Washing her feet is a placeholder for any bit of love provided in those moments.

I think that is why I personally take such stock in Holy Week. It is a chance to reset these norms and remind myself what is truly important.

I know I will fall short often throughout the year. There will be times when I am too judgmental, too stubborn and too set in my own position to meet that standard. I will be divisive and upset and callous. But I will also remember to be better; if not in those instances, then in the next.

In that sense, any reminder is helpful. Whether it is a Super Bowl ad or a weekday Mass.

Mario Nicolais contributes to The Colorado Sun, a nonpartisan news organization based in Denver.