Tonight, Pope Francis I will eschew some of the traditional Papal trappings around the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and instead will celebrate the feast at a Roman prison for juveniles. These young men will be the recipients of the ceremonial foot washing that is part of the Catholic Holy Thursday rites throughout the world. Few members of this prison population are Catholics. Many are not even Christian. A high percentage is Muslim.
Catholics around the world will be watching Francis in this first Easter Triduum since his election. The Triduum refers to the three very unique services that take place each year on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter). As we watch, I hope and believe most of us will be saying, “Yes, this is right. This is good.”
Although washing other people’s feet may seem to the secular 21st Century person to be an odd thing to do, when you put it into perspective the meaning becomes clear. The area of 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived out his short life has a hot and arid climate. A majority of it is desert. The clothing was much the same as native dress in that area today – lightweight flowing clothes to protect one’s body from the sun’s intense heat and the ever present dust. The feet were the most exposed parts of the body, protected only by sandals if you had them. If not, you walked barefoot.
It was the custom of householders to provide water bowls and towels near the door for guests to dip their hot and tired feet to refresh themselves when they entered the house. If it was a rich household, a servant would help the guest.
Foot washing comes up more than once in John’s Gospel, which uses the ablution to show the hypocrisy of a Jewish aristocrat who invites Jesus to dine at his house but never offers him this courtesy, then is outraged when one of Jesus’ female disciples enters and does it for him.
But it is on the evening before his death when Jesus elevates this act and gives it the symbolic power we will see today. The Gospel tells us that Jesus and his closest friends came together to eat the traditional Passover supper to celebrate the feast that commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. As they arrive, Jesus, the leader and master (or teacher) of this group, prepares to take the place of a servant and wash his friends’ feet himself. This causes consternation among his followers, ever conscious of the norms of society and how out of order this all feels. Jesus assures them that to follow him, one must do as he does and serve others.
Francis’ act of humility and caring touches those with open hearts in ways we can’t even put into words. From the perspective of the 21st century West, it gives us hope that the Church hierarchy may experience metanoia, a change of heart, that eyes might be opened to the need in the world for shepherds who lead by example, not fear, and work to see with the eyes of Christ.
A few years back, I won a free facial in a teacup auction. What I did not know was that a facial at that spa included a foot massage (I don’t do this very often!) As I lay on the massage table, eyes covered, and in a deep state of relaxation, the woman who was caring for me anointed my feet, in a way, with fragrant oils, and began to loosen up all the tired muscles and tendons and whatever else your feet are made of.
In that moment, I experienced an incredible sense of well-being, of love, of caring. I was overcome with gratitude to the woman who would take care of me in such a way. I think Francis, a Jesuit, would understand when I say this was truly a moment of “consolation without previous cause.” (If you are curious, look this phrase up on the Internet or go to one of the links on this website.) I had come to this moment far from expecting an experience of God, and yet, there God was.
This woke me up to a deeper understanding of how Christ touches us through the hands of others. I wanted to give this gift away. I talked to people about doing foot massages in homeless shelters, but there were all sorts of reasons this would not work. People are weird about feet!
I had my chance later that summer when I volunteered for the day at an event called Convoy of Hope. This is a community event involving thousands of volunteers who distribute food and clothing and hook people up with services they may need. (It’s a national faith-based organization, also on the Internet.) Volunteers were asked to choose where they would work for the day. In one tent, they were giving out free sneakers and socks. People also had the option of being ministered to through foot washing. When I took a long view and observed the masses of people coming from what seemed a hundred directions to receive at the Convoy, I must admit that I really didn’t want to do this! But the call was there and I had to answer it.
So, what was it like to wash the feet of strangers? It wasn’t nearly as amazing as I might have hoped. Most of the folks were embarrassed. They didn’t seem to understand the symbolism and it just seemed like a waste of time to them. But as one after another, individuals and families, came before me, I saw the great hunger, physical, emotional and spiritual, that Christ, through us, desires to feed. I saw thousands of volunteers spend a hot, dusty summer Sunday, laboring to do something to alleviate the suffering of others. Believe me, we all needed a foot massage at the end of that day! I saw Christ at work in the world.
Some will say the Church has lost its way. I am sure the church, with a small “c,” has not. WE are the church! We have foibles and failures and yes, sometimes we want to get out of the parking lot too soon on Sunday morning! But we are the church of Christ, laboring in a strange and disappointing world to bring God’s dreams to reality.
And we are very hopeful about Francis. He feels like one of us!