Who Will Wash?

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Maundy Thursday has enjoyed a long and faithful history in my church, rich with meaning, pageantry, and participation. For decades, the people of my parish have gathered on this evening to hear how Christ instituted the Last Supper; to watch as the altar, like his body, is stripped of its “clothing”; to pray through the night as though they are there with him two-thousand years ago in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a night of “mystic sweet communion” with Christ and his Church.

The one thing it lacked when I arrived, though, was foot washing. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is a significant piece of the Maundy Thursday Gospel reading. Uncomfortable though it may be, foot washing is a crucial part of the story: a jarring display of Christ’s servant heart as he prepares to leave his disciples for the Cross. Having grown up in a parish where foot washing was the norm on Maundy Thursday, I felt it was something we ought to add. So, about five years ago, we did. And it has been beautiful. Confusing, uncomfortable, and not everyone’s cup of tea, but still beautiful.

Of course, what we do for foot washing at my church–and at most churches–is a far cry from what our Lord and his friends would have experienced. The pitchers and bowls are pristine. The water is clear and soft. Our choir fills the air with sweet music in a warmly lit, beautifully appointed sanctuary. And none of us are about to be arrested and crucified. But there’s still something good and right about it all, both for those who participate and for those who choose simply to watch from their place in the pew. From the beginning, we left it open for people to come forward and to participate on both sides of the equation–as the washer and the washed–and I’ve seen some truly holy moments transpire around those bowls. Christ has been present, of that I am sure.

But here has been the challenge:

What does it all mean when those who come forward almost always come in familiar–if not familial–pairs? Husbands and wives. Boyfriends. Girlfriends. Best friends.

Likewise, what does it mean when someone wishes to participate in this holy, near-sacramental activity, but has come alone and is afraid no one will be willing to join her?

What does it mean when someone is not sure he can physically kneel on the floor to do the washing, and therefore opts out of the whole thing altogether?

In these moments, foot washing becomes a private ritual. It becomes less vulnerable. It becomes something other than what it’s supposed to be. To wash the feet of your family member is a lovely thing, but it is a safe thing, a closed circuit. What Jesus was creating on that Thursday night all those years ago was a new family, connected over and above all other connections by the singular love he had for his disciples.

For these reasons, at my church this year we are pressing the reset button on foot washing: still inviting all to participate, but leaving the act of washing to the clergy. This is not a perfect solution, but here are at least three rationales.

1. With the clergy performing the foot washing, no one has to have a ready-made soul-mate in the room. No one has to negotiate finding a pair. No one has to be excluded from the family of God and the servant ministry of Christ. On this night, Jesus is your soul-mate. Christ is your pair. Come and receive.

2. Not everyone is capable of getting on the floor. Bad knees. Hip replacements. Aging backs, arms, and legs. Plenty of folks have said to me over the years, “I would do it–I want to do it–but I physically cannot kneel down on the floor to do the washing. So, I just don’t come at all.” This year, participation is not conditioned on reciprocation. The clergy find their place on the floor as their gift to others, so that all who want to take part, can.

3. This is actually how the liturgy is written. The Book of Occasional Services presumes the priest will do all the foot washing. I’ve long pushed against this since Jesus himself said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14) But the words given to the Celebrant are striking in their invitation and instruction to those who participate:

Fellow servants of our Lord Jesus Christ: On the night before his death, Jesus set an example for his disciples by washing their feet, an act of humble service. He taught that strength and growth in the life of the Kingdom of God come not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service. We all need to remember his example, but none stand more in need of this reminder than those whom the Lord has called to the ordained ministry.

Therefore, I invite you who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to come forward, that I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master. But come remembering his admonition that what will be done for you is also to be done by you to others, for “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Perhaps the framers of this liturgy felt it more important on this night for people to experience what the disciples of Jesus’ experienced: the vulnerable blessedness of receiving, a receiving that compels you not just in the present liturgical moment, but in all of life, to “go and do likewise.”

Maundy Thursday is a night of fellowship and unity, of discipleship and vulnerability–all within the saving embrace of Christ our Lord. To be honest, I frankly don’t know the perfect, foolproof way for how foot washing ought to go. I just know that we should do it. And I know that on this Maundy Thursday, it will be a peculiar and humble blessing to kneel before the ones who call me pastor as they allow me and my clergy colleague to wash their feet in witness to our Lord’s love for them.

My prayer is that it will be a gift of grace to all who participate, and that it will give everyone–this night and always–the courage of heart and willingness of mind to “go and do likewise.”

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