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
Thank you. In the parish where I served in Ames, Iowa, we were also invited to wash each other’s feet. It was moving – especially watching parents wash the feet of their children.
Thank you also for using my photo – a photo I took last year in a very poor village here in Honduras, where I invited the people to wash each other’s feet – after I had washed the feet of twelve persons. I was moved because these were not manicured feet, but the feet of people who walked in muddy roads and fields, with calloused and dirty feet.
A blessed foot-washing today!
John – thank you for your words and this beautiful photo! As I looked at your comment I realize we have met. I volunteered at the Farm of the Child from 2009-2011, and you facilitated a retreat for us towards the end of my time:
That’s me standing, third from the right in the real tank top.
I, too, have powerful memories of Holy Thursday in Honduras. Footwashing takes on a whole new meaning when there truly is “dirt under the toenails.” I remember one year in particular, hiking down the mountain in my sandals and arriving just in time for communion service in our chapel. I’d been visiting the family of one of my students, who lived in a rural aldea without electricity or running water. I glanced down at my feet as communion service began and saw how filthy they were from the walk – much as I imagine the disciples’ feet to have been that day.
Blessings to you this Triduum
What a joy to be reconnected – over washing feet! Blessings for the Triduum. Keep in touch.