This year, our Holy Thursday liturgy will be missing a familiar component—the Washing of the Feet. A small if unholy part of me is somewhat relieved. The liturgy is long enough. Surely we’ve sanitized sufficiently this year! And quite frankly, I find the foot-washing to be a bit awkward.
In the past, the ceremony was always choreographed carefully to minimize clumsiness and fumbling. Most of those coming forward had pre-washed their feet; some of the women had pedicured and powdered or perfumed them. How shocking it would be if their feet were as dirty as those of the real apostles; if we encountered the odor, or saw water blackened by grime! Still, those coming forward to have their feet washed always seem reluctant as if it is something to endure rather than to be honored by.
Yet it’s to the awkwardness that Jesus, smiling, summons my attention.
I flash back to another supper, years ago when I was a young adult in NYC. I was seeking a way to serve, to be Jesus to the poor, to find some sort of mission and meaning in my life. So one Sunday I slipped on my goody two-shoes and headed to the South Bronx to serve supper at the men’s homeless shelter.
It seemed simple; I could cook; I could ladle soup; I would be happy organizing and cleaning up. But when we arrived, the food was all prepared. There was only one pot, and so only one person was needed to serve. There was in fact nothing to “do” but to sit down for supper among the shelter guests.
If among my readers there are any other shy introverts, you will know how and why I was suddenly struck with terror. Small talk is not among my skill sets; even on a good day, I stammer and struggle to come up with things to say. I consider cocktail parties to be purgatorial. Usually I have tried to find ways to avoid them or spend them hiding in the bathroom.
But this was another level entirely. For I found that my usual go-to questions were wildly inappropriate. “What do you do for a living?” “Do you like to travel?” “Have you been anywhere interesting lately?” None of these things could I ask homeless men!
I smiled, and tried to be friendly, but I could think of nothing to say. Nothing. I could think of nothing we had in common, nothing to jump start conversation. There was no women’s room to hide in, so I just sat there awkwardly.
The silence grew more and more awkward, and I prayed fervently for divine assistance. This should be the part of the story where, as promised in Luke 12:12, “the Holy Spirit will tell you what you are to say”—but even He was silent.
Instead, the men around me began to intuit my awkwardness and fear, and they started to reach out to me. Moved with pity at my obvious discomfort, they sought to help me–to comfort me, to engage me, even to entertain me. They made sure that I had enough food, something to drink, extra dessert. One even brought me a “special seasoning” –a very hot spice from his home country (fully legal!) and was delighted when I was willing to try it.
By the end of the evening, it was clear that I had become the guest of honor of these humble men I had thought that I was coming to serve. I had nothing to offer them except my willingness to let them love me. To let them be Jesus to me.
Back to the Gospel, Peter balks at allowing Jesus to bend and serve Him. He knows that he is unworthy, that it is he who should be washing the feet of his Lord. But it is not just to service that Jesus is summoning him. Peter will also always need to receive from Jesus, always need to be washed and renewed. The events of later that night will only highlight this need.
It is sometimes tempting to see the washing of the feet as a one-time event. When I was in college people used to speak of their B.C. life—Before Conversion, Before Christ—in contrast to their life now that they know better. And indeed, there should be a marked difference.
But perhaps at times we move too quickly to the After—not out of a desire to transform and reconcile, but out of a fear to be found in that awkward place of needing mercy. If we only try hard enough, frequent Confession often enough, we’ll avoid the vulnerability of meeting Jesus smelling bad.
Yet we will always stand before Jesus like Peter, in need of being washed. “There will never be a time when you become exempt; never a point when you will no longer be in need of it,” my spiritual director would remind me, regularly.
The first step is to allow God into the mess, into the “Before Picture.” The second is to realize that there is not, and will never be, an “After” picture—I will always stand before Him, always awkward, always unworthy, always in need of His love and service to me.
Would that this Holy Thursday we rejoice in our ongoing need for washing, in our Savior who bends down to cleanse us.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SpiritualDirection.com and is reprinted here with kind permission.