Crumbs on the floor, remnants of bread broken.
Drops of sweet wine in the bottom of a cup.
The sound of water splashing into a basin.
A servant’s towel wrapped around the waist.
Today is a day of taste and touch. It is a day of earthiness, of remembrance. Today we wash feet.
At my parish in Boston, today’s liturgy is done differently than I ever experienced it growing up. Instead of the foot-washing being limited to the priest and the chosen twelve, the entire community – rich, poor, gay, straight, old, young, able-bodied and not – all are invited to come forward to wash the feet of a fellow parishioner and to have our own feet washed in return.
Initially, as it does for most of us, the practice made me uncomfortable. Our feet might be calloused, frail, or smelly. We might have dirt under our toenails, or our legs might not be shaven. We feel anxious at the thought of allowing another person—generally, a total stranger—to embrace our feet in their hands, to rub them with warm water, to dry them with a soft towel, to touch our very skin. Yet having participated in this foot-washing several times now, I find so much beauty in this yearly ritual. The act of coming forward to have my feet washed reminds me that my own humanness is not beyond redemption – that I can come as I am, without pretense, and that I will be embraced, cared for, and treated with kindness and mercy. As Annie Dillard writes,
“Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.”
It is all right, indeed, to be people, and the foot-washing teaches me that I do not need to sanitize myself and my story before entering into the great unfolding mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Tired and calloused as they may be, my bare feet will take me down the center aisle of the church tonight. I will roll up my pant legs and stand, waiting, watching hands caress toes, awkward glances of gratitude between strangers, the young and the old and the rich and the poor come forward in this act of kinship and service. Feet that have stood in board rooms and rested below desks, that have paced hospital floors and classrooms, smelly feet that have run laps at high school sports practice, and tired parent feet that have chased toddlers all day – All will come, as they are, to be washed and embraced, to have their very toes handled, to know that it is indeed all right to be human. Then—having received tenderness and mercy—we go forth to wash the feet of another, knowing ourselves to be not perfect but good, not heroic but still capable of kindness, knowing that it is indeed all right to be people.
Listen to an audio version of this post…
Music by Kevin MacLeod