On the night he was betrayed, John tells us, Jesus took a towel and a basin to do a servants job. With the towel around his waist, he knelt and washed the feet of his twelve closest followers. In doing so, Jesus modeled for his followers across time a posture of empowered powerlessness and taught us that we each are the means of grace for one another.
Following Jesus’ words that “you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” (John 13:14) Christian communities varied in their practice of washing feet. A year ago, Pope Francis made headlines by washing the feet of 12 inmates. Historically, the Pope recreated the scene of that upper room by washing the feet of twelve clerics. In choosing 12 inmates instead, Francis broke with long established tradition. In Benedictine monasteries, the new weekly table servers stoop to wash the feet of the previous week’s servers. And in feudal times, Kings often would bring a pauper into the court and in an act of political symbolism would wash his or her feet. Yet, few traditions take Jesus’ words so literally as to wash each other’s feet.
Anabaptist groups this week will follow Jesus’ mandate on Maundy Thursday. One in particular, my own tradition of the Church of the Brethren, practices it in a way that makes sure each one present around the table of the Lord’s Supper is both washed and washes another. In this simple rite, the Brethren will radically bring to life the central theology of the church– the priesthood of all believers. A basin of water will be passed around the table, and the one just washed will wash the feet of the person next to him or her. Finsihed washing, they will stand and embrace offering simple words of grace. In the exchange they will pass the towel as if it were a mantle in the priesthood of all.
There is no doubt that the whole process is uncomfortable. We just don’t wash feet any more. And taking off shoes and socks in front of another person is certainly an intimate act, a practice of vulnerability. And to hold someone else’s foot just doesn’t happen every day. So it is no wonder that we quickly empathize with Peter. “Are you going to wash my feet!” And in reading the words of John’s gospel, Jesus’ words echo in our own ears. “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet.”
The inference is clear. Jesus recalled the baptism that he and his followers had undergone in the Jordan. The washing then, is not a full soul cleaning, but a wiping of the feet from the dirt that accumulates in daily living.
In passing the mantle towel, we give and receive grace. In letting go of cultural power, we receive the power of offering grace to our sisters and brothers in faith. In uncovering our feet, we let go of the power of isolation, vulnerably presenting ourselves to others in order to receive grace, like Peter before us.
In our modern interpretations, the rite of washing feet is described as an embodiment of service. Though this is true, it masks the cosmic drama inherent in the act. We make it easier by invoking an altruistic act, saying that we learn service. Yet, it does not account for the equally vulnerable act of receiving Christ’s grace from another. We can easily reconcile the selfless act of giving, but are challenged when we must receive grace from the hands of another.
In the midst of Holy Week, gathered around a table like the first disciples, we as the modern followers of Jesus perform the rite he modeled so long ago. By recreating the act of washing and being washing, we bring to life the image of the Church as priests to one another.
We are the church when we pass the mantle of powerlessness, the servant’s towel, and embody grace to one another.
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