The last time that someone washed my feet in a real-life situation (not that liturgy is not real life – it should be, it should represent to us the realest of realities, life fully lived – but we often fail to take it that way, so let me put it this way for now); the last time that someone washed my feet in a real-life situation was more than quarter of a century ago. I had argued that morning with my mother. We loved each other very much, but I had disappointed her, and she was in the process of disappointing me with her response. My rejection of her values felt to her like a betrayal; her refusal to accept my independence felt like betrayal to me. We argued, then, each out of our own sense of injured love; but life goes on, and I went out for the day.
When I came home, my foot was bleeding from a cut acquired through the wearing of open-toed sandals in a dirty and dangerous city. My mother came into the bathroom where I was going through the tortured motions you have to go through in order to get your own feet under running water and into clean bandages. Without hesitation, my mother took my feet out of my hands, washed them, anointed them with antibiotic ointment, and bandaged them for me. As she worked, she offered from her knees and from her heart her forgiveness, her acceptance, her love; and I found myself doing the same. Neither of us had changed our position, yet love and mercy won, and we were reconciled.
We ask our annual ritual of foot-washing to bear a lot of freight. Once a year, we become the disciples, receiving grace without understanding; we are Peter, trying to deny, to resist; we are Judas, scalded by the touch of mercy; we are the woman, washing Jesus’ feet with our tears and drying them with our hair, anointing them with ointment and with kisses. We are Jesus, with a towel around our waist. No wonder are tempted to sidestep the real issues of betrayal and forgiveness, murder, mayhem and humble reconciliation, true love; no wonder we are tempted to turn it into a parable of pretense, a re-enactment; rarified ritual, performance religion, humbler-than-thou, obsequious servility, anything but reality.
Jesus was not play-acting with his disciples. This was not a stunt; it was a prophetic action, a parable played out. He knew that Judas would betray him. He knew that Peter would deny him. He knew that all of them would wonder if they had been wrong all along, if they had fallen under the spell of a madman. He needed them to know, too, that they were loved, to the end; only then would they stand any chance of obeying that new commandment, to love one another.
He needed them to know that they were forgiven for their doubts and their faltering faith, that they were accepted and reconciled and that God’s steadfast love and mercy ran through Jesus’ veins and through his hands and through the water that was poured upon them.
We ask our ritual of foot-washing to bear a lot of freight, if we do it right. Just as the breaking of the bread should make us shudder at the memory of the body broken, quaking through our own brokenness, yet bringing sweetness to the tongue; so the water should make us shiver with its knowledge of all of our betrayals, yet soothe us with its forgiving touch.
If our liturgy is to connect to our real life, a whole life lived in the light of Christ, then what we bring to our ritual is our real selves, our own betrayal, our own faltering faith, our own forgiveness, our own injured and imperfect love. Our love that is injured by injustice; restricted by our freedom to discriminate, rendered imperfect by our self-righteousness before God, our false humility before one another. We betray one another by our failure, our refusal to see Christ in those whose feet he would have washed without a moment’s hesitation.
If our liturgy is true, then we no longer become Peter, or James, or John. We are not play-acting, re-enacting, pretending humility, forcing familiarity. We are not the unnamed woman with the tears and the ointment. We are not Judas, and we are not Jesus.
We are children of God, hasty and rebellious. We are the Body of Christ, bearing God’s witness to the world, reconciling power and authority with love.
By this, said Jesus, shall they know that you are my disciples: that you love one another. Indiscriminately, showing a serious lack of judgement, all-loving, all-serving, all-forgiving.
When we allow the ritual to speak to our own realities, our own foot-washing becomes a prophetic action, calling us and compelling us to confession of our sins against God and against one another, our injured and imperfect love; recommending reconciliation, offering forgiveness and fortitude, strength for the journey as servants of Christ, apostles of the gospel of God’s love for all whom God has made; made for the love of God and of one another.
We become the Body of Christ, not only our feet but our hands and our heads and our hearts; a Body, injured, wounded, even broken, but resurrected always by the risen life of Christ, the love of Jesus, the everlasting mercy of God.