Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feet_washing
I'm sad that I'm not Catholic this year. Really. For all the things I cannot accept about Catholic theology, they do Holy Week really, really well. Last year, when I was busy keeping the peace by reliving my Catholic convert days with G., I attended some Holy Week services. This year, I have nowhere to celebrate them. I didn't go to Ash Wednesday Mass, and haven't really observed Lent (thinking that my fast from dating is sufficient mortification), but that didn't bother me so much. Not having anywhere to observe Holy Week does.
My mother and I were discussing footwashing today. Being as sensitive to hygiene as she is, she's disgusted by the ritual. She neither wants to touch someone else's feet, nor does she want to inflict the sight of her feet on someone else. Feet are not generally the prettiest part of a person, and the older you get --as I, formerly of the class of people possessing "pretty feet", have found to my chagrin-- the uglier your feet become. My Mom's feet bear the marks of 2 pregnancies; of her love of pretty, flimsy shoes that provided no arch support; of the 3 mile nightly walks we took in my teens (most of the time with her wearing the flimsy shoes); of weight gain and age. They are perfectly ordinary feet for a 55 year old woman, and to my Mother, unfortunately, they are shameful.
To me, though, footwashing is one of the most beautiful rituals the Christian church has. In Jesus' day, the revolutionary part of it was that HE --the Messiah-- washed the feet of the disciples. That's the original message of the story, and it is still profound today, turning the then-popular notion of Messiah as Military Conqueror on its head and showing a Messiah who conquered through love and servitude instead. The act of footwashing itself wasn't so out of the ordinary. Now, both acts seem odd and therefore a little mystical -- the act of footwashing, and the act of humility in seeing, touching, and washing someone else's feet.
My favorite memory of footwashing took place 3 years ago at Northern Virginia Mennonite Church. Pearl led the Maundy Thursday service... if memory serves there were the usual readings, the somber tone of remembering the night that Judas decided to betray Jesus, a few songs, maybe. The services there were always simple and I loved that. After the service, we went downstairs to the multipurpose room. The lights were off and candles were lit all around the room, giving it a warm, intimate feel (a hard effect to achieve in that particular room). There were tubs of warm water, and the men and women sat separated in semi-circled folding chairs on opposite sides of the room (which I rather appreciated once my inner feminist got over the initial weirdness of it).
Pearl started by washing the feet of the person at the end of the semicircle, and one by one, the women in the semi circle had their feet washed by the previous woman. It was all done in total silence, and each woman washed the feet of their neighbor carefully, gently. The only sound you heard was the sound of water pouring over feet, the creaking of the folding metal chairs, and the sharp exhale as each woman got on and off of her knees.
I had never felt so close to those particular women than at that moment. If you've ever soaked your feet before you know how wonderful it feels to put your feet in warm water. It makes your entire body relax. That sensation, combined with the quiet holiness of the moment, filled me a sense of overwhelming love for these women. I wanted to hug each of them, to look into their eyes and tell them that they were loved by God and that I loved them, too, in my awkward, fickle-selfish, human way. The silence of the ritual spared everyone the embarrassment of having me get all hippie on a bunch of stalwart Mennonites... but even without my emoting, there was a barrier broken, and an intimacy that no other ritual within orthodox Christianity could have achieved.
Right now, I miss that moment and I miss that church... but I'm also grateful that I had the moment, and that I had my time to be at that church under Pearl's quiet, deep, humble direction. I'm comforted by the thought that people all over the world are having their feet washed tonight, and feeling the barrier between relative strangers broken, the body of Christ unified, if only for a little while.