You know that moment that happens as you’re growing up, when you realize that your family is different than some other families? That not everyone’s dad, for example, makes cracker pudding for Easter out of Saltines and coconut? (True story. It’s delicious.)
I relived that moment this week as I prepared for tonight’s service. You see, I grew up in a congregation that did footwashing every single Maundy Thursday, and so for me, it just ain’t Maundy Thursday is no one’s broken out the big basin and the towel yet.
But this week, I read a blog post by one of my pastor colleagues about how weird the whole footwashing thing is. She began with a disclaimer about how she doesn’t like to be touched by people she doesn’t know—which I totally understand—and then cut loose with what seemed like years of pent-up dislike for this liturgical rite, even calling it “a festival of inappropriate touching.”
I was floored. It was like someone had not only told me that they didn’t like my dad’s cracker pudding—which is, you know, fine, Saltines and coconut aren’t for everyone—but went on to call this beloved holiday dish a festival of inappropriate culinary intermingling. Like, ouch.
At first I was defensive. Then I was broody. And then I was frustrated: because, guys, here’s the truth of it:
Footwashing is weird.
Footwashing is uncomfortable.
Tonight is the first night we’re trying out the footwashing thing here at Trinity, so, let’s just get it out there:
Having other people touch your feet is not normal in this culture. Scholars tell us that it was probably more normal in Jesus’ time, but even then, washing feet was a job for servants for a reason. Nobody wanted to do it.
But. (There’s a but.) Footwashing is also one of the most vulnerable of our liturgical rites—which is precisely why it can provoke such a strong response. It requires one person to kneel at another’s feet. It means that one person has to uncover a part of the human body that usually spends its day stuffed in a shoe, and another person has to touch it. That is vulnerability.
And because of that vulnerability, there is also room for the rite to be tremendously powerful.
I think of a story that Andrew Solomon told in his book The Noonday Demon. He was interviewing a Cambodian woman who had survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and started a group in a resettlement camp to help shattered women begin to heal. A key part of her plan? Pedicures.
Why did it work?
As the woman explained: “the worst atrocity of all that was brought by the Khmer Rouge was that half the country turned against the other half of the country. And people who lived through that period knew that they couldn’t put anything in anyone else, and they completely lost the habit of looking anyone else in half in the eye.”
“All of these women had been deprived for a long time of any occasion to indulge in the least bit of personal vanity. I brought them to my hut, and I built a special room that I would fill with steam. And it was a pleasure for them to feel beautiful. But what was really amazing for them was that, in this context, it was something that was at once very intimate and very impersonal. And they would start, because I was telling them how to do it and giving them some instruction, to handle each others’ fingers and each others’ toes. And it meant they were touching each other. And if I had told them to begin to hold each others’ hands or to have some kind of physical contact with other people, they would’ve shied away and they would have pulled back. They weren’t ready to do anything with anyone. But, in this context, they would touch each others’ fingers, touch each others’ toes, and then, because it was such a funny context, and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together. And they would begin to tell each other little bits of stories and things and that was the way that I taught them to trust again.’”
And then there’s the way that a little Episcopalian congregation up in New Haven practices Maundy Thursday. They hold weekly outdoor services followed by free meals so that they can minister to the homeless of the city. But on this particular day of the year, they gather volunteers, church members, and clergy to combine foot-washing with medical foot care for people who walk the streets.
The average homeless person walks 8.5 miles a day, and those tired feet are washed, massaged, and inspected by medical professionals who could look for signs of diabetes, gout, lung conditions, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, all of which affect the feet. Afterwards, each person got a pair of new socks and a voucher for a free pair of shoes, and a meal.
And then there was that moment I got to witness at last year’s Maundy Thursday service at my school’s chapel. There were four footwashing stations in the corners of the room, and near the end of the service, when most of the attendees had left, I saw the Dean of the school kneel down and wash the feet of a young man, who, just a few days ago, had preached a sermon on the hypocrisy tied into the school’s institutionalism. It was wild to see the Dean, in his suit and tie, kneeling to wash the feet of that young man—and that young man letting his feet be washed by the Dean.
And then, of course, there was the time when Jesus got up from the table, tied a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.
When he got to Peter, Peter said—“Lord, what’s up with this festival of inappropriate touching? If anything, it should be me washing your feet.”
And Peter, as he so often did, had it exactly right and exactly wrong at the same time.
Of course it should have been the disciples washing Jesus feet. Of course that was the way it should go.
But that it wasn’t that way was exactly Jesus’ point. Jesus’ point was that, when it came to him, the way things should go broke down. Jesus should have had his feet washed, but he washed the disciples’ instead. He should have been honored as a king, but he was crucified as a criminal. He should have had faithful disciples, but he had denying Peter and betraying Judas, and he has you, and he has me. He should have been lifted up and worshipped by everyone, but instead he was lifted up on a cross.
But somehow, somehow, the complete failure of everything to go the way that it should have gone doesn’t matter. Somehow, somehow, God is at work in all of it, in the midst of everything going wrong, the power of death is broken, and at the moment when all seems lost, that is the moment when the grave cracks open.
This week there was Brussels. There was Istanbul. Before that: Ankara, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Yemen. This week there was terror, and there was death. This week, there is fear, and we are part of it; inclined to shut out the world, to lock ourselves in the upper room, to close the borders, to build a wall, to become invulnerable, because death and terror seem unstoppable, and even in the act of resisting them, we somehow become their agents, spreading the fear and mistrust that creates such fertile soil for doctrines of hate and exclusion.
And in the midst of the ongoing cycle of violence and mistrust, in the very heart of the city that stones its prophets, Jesus kneels down, and washes his disciples’ feet.
God knelt down, and took the parts of ourselves we don’t like anyone to see or touch, and washed them clean.
It is, perhaps, the only thing that could have preserved the apostles throughout the days that were to come. The certainty of knowing themselves so loved by God, that God’s own Son stooped and held in his hand their calloused heels, and poured water over their dirty toes…that God’s Son saw them and knew them so entirely, and loved them so much.
Listen: footwashing is weird. It is the cracker pudding of the liturgical world, and it’s OK if you don’t like it. But it is also one of the oddest and most wonderful reminders of how thoroughly, how completely, how unconditionally, God loves each of us, and how powerfully that loves heals us: body, heart, and soul.