On the Thursday before Easter known to Catholics as "Holy" or "Maudry" Thursday, the gospel reading for the mass is about the Last Supper. When Luke, Matthew and Mark recount the story of the Last Supper, the focus is on the covenant Jesus speaks of ( "This is My body...This is My blood.").
John, on the other hand, gives us the only account of the Passover meal where Jesus gets down on the ground and washes every body's feet.
Every parish does this next part differently, but in each church after the gospel and then the homily, there's usually some literal foot washing. It's often the priest who washes the feet of some lay ministers. One year at the church I attended at college I was asked to be one in a handful of parishioners to have their feet washed. I sat rigid in my chair as my feet got washed. It felt weird. I hoped no one would ask me about it later.
This year, at St. Cecelia's in Boston, Fr. John closed his homily by introducing the foot washing saying, "For those of you who don't know us, here at St. Cecelia's we don't just wash the feet of the twelve men on the church board." The congregation chuckled knowingly and my mouth opened as I realized what was coming next.
Father John reminded everyone that they didn't have to participate, but he invited everyone who wanted in to ditch their shoes and socks in the pews. I shook my head in disbelief.
As the choir sang and bowls of water were set up, I reflected on the first half of Fr. John's homily. He had pointed out that in the midst of everything else going on with that Passover night Jesus told his disciples to wash one another's feet. "That's it," Fr. John said in his comforting Boston accent, "that's all it comes down to. Washing each other's feet."
He urged us to think about the feet we've washed, literally and figuratively. And to think about whose feet we should wash next. He asked us to think about those in our lives who need to be "scrubbed" by our forgiveness, or our compassion. He implored us to try to "rinse" those around us by being refreshingly positive in every day small talk rather than respond to those around us with sarcasm or negativity.
My thoughts tumbled as I stepped into the aisle and got in line with the other bare foot men, women and children. I thought about the people in my life who need compassion, patience and positive energy the most. I thought about the people in my life who provide me with the compassion and love I need to survive.
Then I couldn't help but start to think about the literal feet I've washed as a CNA and then as an RN. For that reason alone I imagined this ritual was less scary for me than for some of the other strangers in line. (Or the ones sitting with their shoes securely tied on in the pews).
That made me remember about the man who wouldn't let me wash his feet.
As I stepped up to the bowl to have my feet washed by the stranger in front of me, who had just had his feet washed by the stranger in front of him I thought about the people I met in Haiti. I remembered how most of the people doing the "foot washing" in those tents weren't blood relations of the injured or dying patients - they were just neighbors who were responding to the need they saw around them.
After the man at my knee was finished washing my feet he patted them dry with a clean towel. He put it down, and an altar server appeared to refill the bowl and replace the towel. As she did so, the man and I embraced and I thanked him. Then I took my place at the bowl and washed the feet of the next seated stranger. After I dried his feet he thanked me, and hugged me goodbye. I padded back to my seat, struck by a lack of discomfort in the whole thing. Mine and everyone else's too.
"We belong to a church with a ton of hierarchy, huh?" Fr. John had challenged at the top of the homily, "sometimes it seems like people are more interested in getting their feet washed than washing other feet."
He continued, "We have a lot of ways of describing the hierarchy and power and ritual, huh? High mass? Low mass? But no matter how you understand religion, or what parts (pahts) of it are attractive to you... in the end it is all about washing one another's feet."<
That, as it so happens, is actually exactly how I choose to understand religion.