What are we doing tonight? This ritual of foot washing has deep cultural and liturgical roots in the church. In many ways, it is not unlike trying to read an ancient scroll. The signs are lost in history although still we say the words. We do not, in these times, wash the feet of guests in our homes.
For us, it is only our intuition and somewhat uncomfortable feeling that can connect us with this act. Who do you think feels the most uncomfortable in this, the person who washes or the person who is washed? It has something to do with vulnerability, does it not? And it has to do with an act that has little cultural connection for us. In our culture, whom do we wash? Babies, the seriously ill, the dying. It’s not surprising that this ritual action feels uncomfortable for us.
Let us look at some of the roots of this rite to achieve some depth of understanding. In Genesis 18:4-5, Abraham greets the messengers who will announce Sarah’s pregnancy, in this way:
4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
Thus, one of the associations with foot washing is hospitality. In the case of Abraham, it is welcoming the holy into the midst of one’s life and accepting the message and direction such acceptance brings.
For the levitical priests, hand and foot washing meant preparation to serve at the altar, to be both spiritually and physically clean.
For the affluent, it was a servant’s job to greet guests by washing their feet, except in cases of a particular bond of friendship when a host might perform the act. And it was women’s job to wash bodies for burial.
So when Jesus arises after dinner to wash his disciples’ feet, it would have been alarming on many levels. They were already in the house; they had eaten; they were listening to their Rabbi. But when we put the ancient echoes into place, it makes more sense for us.
The stories of the woman anointing or washing Jesus prepare us for the mutuality Jesus is modelling for his followers. They also are being prepared for death and sacrifice, for the time of trial and troubling truth. They are in the presence of the holy. Their relationship as a community with Jesus sanctified the ground on which their feet rest.
It is in relationship that we are healed and cleansed of our sins. When we have a memory on our conscience, or a story about ourselves that we have hidden, the most effective way to be free of it is to tell it to another. It is the relationship, the mutual trust and honesty, that frees us to see ourselves with compassion. And then we too must listen to the stories of others with compassion and forgiveness,.
There is power in serving and there is vulnerability in being served as Peter discovers. We are all each others’ teachers and healers. To share in mutual love requires that we both give and receive. Without acknowledging the service and gift of another, we are denying them this blessing and inhibiting our own healing.
Feet are odd appendages are they not? One year at St. Laurence we took photos of each others’ feet. The activity occasioned much uncomfortable giggling, but the results were striking. Old feet and young feet, damaged feet and pristine feet, all with a certain distinct look, and yet curiously anonymous. The humility that we learn on Maundy Thursday is not so much about taking on the role of the servant, as understanding that we are each fragile, precious, subject to the wear and tear of life as we try to live faithfully. And for those of us who wash, we are reminded that people share their vulnerability with us, at cost to themselves. Our service humbles us by their trust in our hands, our care for them. Humility lies not in the act but in love that reminds us that we are each Christ and disciple, saviour and supplicant, wounded and healer.
And so we remember as we re-enact this sign, that we stand in the presence of the holy, because our hands and feet make it so. We await the message of hope, despite the fears we have brought with us and the improbability of new life. We give thanks that we are healing and being healed. We look beyond our present doubts and struggles to the birth of a new spirit amongst us, a reborn sign of love, compassion, and hope.
We went through gardens where the trees moved,
The gates to the swamp were thrown open
And we were lost to the sprouting earth.
We were down among the old Easter
Where passion unmade us into our elements.
In that warm dark,
only the blind heart ploughed on,
as though the terrain were known.