One of the strangest bits of ritual in all of Holy Week is the Maundy Thursday foot-washing. Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter, the day we remember the Last Supper, God’s gift to us of the Eucharist, and…the evening when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And so it became the custom to wash feet during that service, and pretty much every Christian priest, from the Pope on down, does so.
In the parish I serve, everyone is invited to participate, and so I found myself seated a few feet away from where people were kneeling, one by one, to wash and then to dry the feet of their neighbors. The scene was one of striking tenderness. Nobody who chose to participate did it in a skimpy way. Instead, each person took the other’s feet in their hands, one at a time; lovingly poured on water, gently toweled them dry. Often, the ritual ended with an embrace, then the washer took his or her place in the chair, another person knelt, and the ritual began again.
We don’t often wash the feet of another human being; a child, maybe, or an elderly person who can no longer bend down for himself. And yet, people came to it with a great naturalness, as if this was what they had been preparing to do all their lives: this act of tenderness, this way to show love.
It reminded me of something I read in a Buddhist text once. It was a meditation for cultivating compassion, and it urged to pray for one another “remembering that this person was once your mother.” I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I can’t take that as written, but it seemed to me a useful imaginative exercise: imagine how you would treat this man/woman/child if he or she were yours — someone who played a key role in your life, someone to whom you owe your very being.
As we do to Jesus, and to one another.
There’s a prayer for evening that says: O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord.