Why, do people sometimes ask, do we centre our faith around the Eucharist and not around the foot-washing?
Even for a one-off act in Holy Week, people rarely rush to volunteer for foot-washing when it is offered. In our climate, we rarely look at or even see people’s feet, never mind touch them. Because they are so often covered, there feels to be a real intimacy in foot-washing. We often feel uncomfortable at the prospect of drawing attention to our feet.
We are in good company, as we hear Peter’s first hesitancy. Not so much for him because it was an intimate thing to do – for foot-washing there, and then, was common in dwellings after sandal-shod feet had trailed in the dust – but because it was usually the job of the servant of the house.
Does it make us more uncomfortable – more even than the thought of people touching, caressing, drying our perhaps misshapen, calloused, rough-skinned feet, perhaps ugly to our eyes yet so vital a part of our body – more uncomfortable to think of basing our faith on such an act of servitude than on the hosting of a dinner with followers?
Might we be able too easily to sweep the lowly servant bit under the carpet in favour of the hospitality of king bit?
But that isn’t what Jesus taught us.
I went back to Westcott the year after I left, for the leavers’ service. Father Principal gave the address and he was telling those soon to be ordained, before he handed out their blessed stoles, about being once a deacon, always a deacon; about remembering always in the embrace of the stole, the embrace of Christ; never hesitating to tie it deaconwise and serve, just as Jesus so readily tied the towel around his waist and washed feet.
Jesus washed feet as an act of love. Whether we are actually washing feet or not, we can model his honouring of people like this by holding their feet in our hearts and washing them with our prayers. I have two lots of feet for us to meditate on as we come to communion.
I’m reminded of the modern idiom of not judging someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but it’s hard to imagine walking only one mile on these feet – and impossible to say ‘in these shoes’.
[A homeless man, and a refugee after a long flight to safety from Sudan]
We must instead spend a moment thinking about the many, many more miles these feet have walked.
The conditions these feet have endured, the hardships suffered by the bodies they carry. The hopes and fears, the disillusionment and despair these feet have walked through. The terrain they have travelled, the precious – but no doubt brief or dangerous – snatched moments of rest they have been allowed to take, when the weight is taken off them. The great responsibility of these feet to their owners.
We might imagine how Jesus would look upon these feet, with compassion and mercy, on their owners with love. How he would barely hesitate to draw a pitcher of water, tie a towel around his waist and kneel before these feet. How he would see them as beautiful, them and their owners. How he would caress them as he gently dried them. How he might – as Pope Francis does to prisoners, women, Muslims – bend and kiss them. How he might – as we heard Mary do for him on Monday – anoint them.
We might feel how his gentle serving of these feet would make their owners – even just for a moment, but a moment to treasure forever – feel like Kings (or Queens). How a simple act of washing off the dust and dirt of the road might also wash away some of the anxieties and burdens carried by their owners on these feet, and restore their dignity.
How can we understand in the not washing of feet, or only in a minimal symbolic way, the great love that Jesus wanted the disciples to understand? Can we imagine being blessed so powerfully by Jesus kneeling at our feet? And if we can, how could we think of hesitating to share that blessing with others?
If we are not next to them to wash their feet, how at least can we serve these people with our prayers? These and so many others like them? Feet which have led hard lives.
In fact, can we imagine kneeling to wash the feet of every person we meet? The recognition of the journeys travelled and obstacles in the road ahead; of the burdens each may be carrying.
If we prayed for everyone we interact with, as though we were washing their feet with Jesus’ love and compassion and care, how might that change our faith and our love for others?
Jesus set us this example just as he commanded us to break bread and share wine together, so let us pray that he be with us not only in the Eucharist but also in our serving and loving of others. By this, will people truly know that we are his disciples.