Monday, August 24, 2015

Washing Feet Out Of Season
(When Every Day Is Maundy Thursday)

My daughter Annie's foot. I've washed it more than any other, save her other one and my own.
God knows she's poured her balm on me as well.
Christians wash each others' feet. Symbolically. Metaphorically. Once-a-year literally. As a kid, the once-a-year occasion was the one I most remembered. The church, all in shadows, all awash in the singing of hauntingly beautiful song. The church leader bent over on one knee, expectant, towel in hand. The approach, the sitting there, the embrace. Then cheeks flushed with fire. A slight tremble at the miracle of another's foot held in my hand. Cleansing a child of God. Pangs of unworthiness. Another embrace. The life God intends for the people of God's table. The pathway to Easter.

Later, in college, I took a summer job as a residential counselor for the physically and mentally challenged. I learned to feed paraplegics and assist campers in tending to basic bodily rhythms in ways that were profoundly holy, entirely ordinary, and most decidedly not once-a-year. Every minute was service. The posture of a heart bent to serve and towel in hand became less act and more disposition. That summer was at once impossibly difficult and one of the greatest privileges I have ever known.

Years later, Rebekah was stretched out on the floor of our birth-instructor's home, with a dozen other women and their partners. I held my hand to her back as we breathed to relax while our leader conveyed the message with which she began every class: "Remember. You are about to give birth to a twenty-four hour a day need." More than once since that day, I'm smiled, cried, laughed, and/or screamed at that truth. "Parenthood. Where it's always Maundy Thursday," I sigh.

Last night, my three-year old son comes into the dining room with mud-covered feet. A day well-lived, I think to myself, smiling. My son's not amused. "I want a bath!" he demands. "You've had a bath and a shower the last two nights..." I offer. "I WANT A BATH!" "You're clean!" I shout back like a madman, "You don't need a bath. A clean person doesn't need a whole bath. Just your feet - " Huh. Maundy Thursday, indeed.

On the Thursday before Easter - Maundy Thursday - Christians gather to do two things that, on the night before he died, Jesus asked his first disciples to do: 1) we celebrate the Eucharist, the holy meal of bread and wine at and in which Episcopalians (not uniquely) believe Christ is present and 2) we wash each others' feet. In the course of the Christian year, we'll celebrate the Eucharist a lot: most of us do so every Sunday, plus at other feasts and occasions throughout the week. Foot-washing, however, is mostly reserved for Maundy Thursday, with the possible exception of youth retreats like Happening, which is awesome and - if you're a teenager - you should totally go.

Because Episcopalians log disproportionate reps at the communion rail relative to the foot washing basin, we sometimes act awkwardly when it comes time to strip off the socks and get our soak on. Everyone's a little nervous because we don't wash each others' feet in church often enough to do it without a few hiccups along the way. Of course, infrequency of practice has the primary benefit of  drawing Christians into the Holy Week story of Christ's death and resurrection intimately and thereby conveying a holy reverence. We don't have the luxury of taking the act for granted. Scarcity of practice, with its attendant clumsiness, instills a sense of nervousness and the act's importance.

My children have taught me, however, that an act's importance does not hinge on its scarcity. Witness the realization of the Book of Common Prayer 1979, when its compilers made the Eucharist normative for a faith community's principle weekly worship. Contra the practice of the Middle Ages and even the 20th century church prior to the BCP 1979, sometimes reflective of concerns that frequency of practice would dilute the significance of the act and/or the readiness of the recipient, the BCP 1979 asserted the constancy of weekly Eucharistic practice, habit, and formation.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the Episcopal church opted - as some denominations in the Christian tradition have from time to time opted - from the two commandments Christ gave that night, to make of foot washing a weekly practice, too. What if, instead of a once-a-year occasion that elicited quiet pre-service chuckles about how gross our feet are, the practice was so common as to be assumed. This is what we do. We bare our feet for each other. We sit in the humility of grace received from another. We hold onto each other. Christ's words in our ears, his example before us, Christ's Spirit upon us, we pour out the pitcher for our sisters and brothers again. And again. And again. And again.

With prayer book revision now on the table, is weekly foot washing an open possibility?

This post is not an argument. I am convinced that a church that doesn't wash feet weekly is as fully capable of faithfulness and brokenness as any other. I suppose I'm writing a question mixed with imagination. I write it because, while Jesus gave us the instructions that night to "do this," he was admittedly vague on the particulars. Thus, I'm also not married to literalism: my new deacon and I will walk over to Porchlight - a neighbor non-profit serving men and women transitioning out of prison and homelessness - in a few minutes to talk with the organizers there about more regular rhythms of connection between our two communities.

Of course, the danger is that the literal or metaphorical foot washing act, done weekly, loses its pizazz over time. I would argue, however, that losing pizazz is not the same as losing meaning. Granted, the meaning we discover in the rhythm of the practice may well be different from the one we first thought it would be or the one we first wanted. Maybe, despite our best efforts, the line between act and disposition gradually blurs inside us until we, ourselves, are no longer our own to control, but we are lost to the service of Christ in our neighbor. That was my experience as a camp counselor at summer camp, and it is certainly my experience as a husband and parent. As a priest, also, and as friend and brother in Christ. On my good days, loss of that control names my thanks for my life as a Christian:

"This is the life God intends for the people of God's table. This is the pathway to Easter."


  1. If not weekly maybe it could become part of a seasonal change - - - the first or last Sunday of a Season?

    I also think it's appropriate to do foot washing for Quiet Days and Weekend Retreats and I do believe it would be wonderful in a wedding ceremony! The Priest could wash one of each of their feet and the couple could wash each others feet after exchanging rings and before walking out of the church for the first time as husband and wife . . .

    1. Absolutely. And I love the idea for weddings. Thanks for the thoughtful post!


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