“He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” – The Gospel of John 13:4-7
The ritual washing of feet is perhaps the most powerful of the Christian ceremonies of this week leading up to Easter. The March 25th issue of The Christian Century magazine ran a cover story about it by Amy Frykholm titled “The Strange Intimacy of Foot Washing.” The cover photo of that issue shows a foot washing ritual from a church. There’s a woman kneeling over a basin and washing the feet of another woman who is seated in a chair. The woman having her feet washed has her hand over her mouth and her eyes are wide. She can hardly believe whatever it is she is feeling. A strange intimacy.
In the ancient near eastern world, before the advent of specialized footwear of every description and size, most people wore sandals if they had any footwear at all, it was considered a polite act of hospitality to wash the feet of guests. The privileged would have a servant do this. . Footwear was open, the ground dusty, and the streets and roads not only dirty but full of garbage and worse. It was part of the culture then. Now, it almost seems an invasion of privacy, weird, a strange intimacy. It’s a powerful and vulnerable space. It’s not a pedicure. It forces upon both participants the breakdown of vanity. All the thoughts of shame and insecurity rush through one’s mind as a foot is bared and another person holds them, wets them, washes them, and dries them. What if my feet smell? My toes look funny. My bunion is ugly, even to me. It’s all just gross!
The intimacy of foot washing reinforces for us not only our insecurities about our bodies, but about personhood, our dignity, our shame. The author of the Christian Century cover story relates an anecdote about the year a homeless man joined the footwashing circle at her Episcopal church and was seated next to the priest’s five year old daughter. She wasn’t the only one who wondered what the interaction would be like when it was that little girl’s turn to wash the feet of the homeless man.
“When it was Lara’s turn, she knelt down at Kenny’s feet as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She lifted Kenny’s feet into the basin of warm water, put soap on her hands, and washed his feet. Kenny laughed nervously and then began to cry. Then everyone began to cry, except Lara, who continued her work in a businesslike manner with deliberate movements. She spread lotion on his feet with interest and attention, as if painting with finger paints.”
The intent of the traditional ritual in Christian churches is to reinforce that the great ones among us are not the powerful and the privileged, but those who serve others. It humbles both the washer and the washed. This Holy Thursday most of us will not be confronted with having our feet washed due to our practicing holy distancing, but all the video conferencing we’ve been doing lately is thrusting us into the role of the person having their feet washed nonetheless. It is a strange, as well as stark and probably somewhat abrupt, intimacy. We are letting people into our homes, into our space. We think about our hair being a mess, the fact that we’re wearing sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt, the room looks untidy and disshelved behind us, our internet connection isn’t good and our built in webcam produces a grainy image, or even worse, the basic idea of having to use a video conferencing app produces technology anxiety beyond our ability to deal with it and just overwhelmes us. And all this anxiety depends on our being privileged enough to own devices to video confernce with, and access to the internet that magically connects us to others.
Just as young Laura was able to wash the homeless man’s feet, so we are asked to be with each other during this time of holy distancing. We are called to be present to each other as we are and to accept others as they are, smelly feet, bed head, rumpled PJs, and all. This is the meaning of Maundy Thursday, after all. Maundy is an old term that refers to the foot washing ritual and comes from the Latin mandatum or “command.” We wash each others’ feet because Jesus told us “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Carter Heyward, says,
“Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity—a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.”
This is the mandatum – don’t be rational about it, just love and allow your heart to convert to humanity, participate in the healing of this broken – and sick – world, and broken lives. We are called to experience life as part of the community. I understand the need to not look slovenly on purpose, but I have no judgement for PJs on their third day, or unwashed hair, on your grainy webcam. I am happy to see you, to know you are there. I am grateful that you see me. Were I with you, I would wash your feet, dry them, and rub them with lotion. I know you would do the same.