Who is going to have their feet washed this year? It seems to be one of the penances for someone in the parish each lent: trying to find people who will have their feet washed – especially men. For some reason, men just don’t line up every year to have their feet washed.
And, as we hear in the Gospel today, there is a long tradition of this – going all the way back to St. Peter himself. “You will never wash my feet,” he says, as he sees the washbowl coming his way.
Why not? What is it about guys not wanting to get their feet washed? I would say that for many, feet are kind of a private thing. I mean, who knows the last time you clipped your toenails, right? I bet most of the people who are having their feet washed this evening have already washed them, scrubbed them, today - maybe even a full pedicure. Talking to my sister last night she said if I was washing her feet she would have written on her toe nails “Hi Fr!” That’s why she is banned from coming into this parish.
But we have to face a certain amount of social inhibition during this rite, don’t we? Especially we mainers. Is that what was going on with St. Peter? Did he have ugly feet? Maybe a big wart on his toe? Probably not, and certainly that is not the lesson of our Gospel today. One thing is certain, Christ is not trying to teach us to let go of social inhibitions. Christ is teaching us something more profound. He is teaching us that we who have been invited to sit at his table, to share in his inheritance, must allow him to wash away a different kind of inhibition, a spiritual inhibition.
Something inside us protests with Peter at the idea of God washing our feet: “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” “This part of me that is caked with the dust of the road and the refuse of a thousand animals?” Why does Jesus need to wash them? It just doesn't seem right, seem appropriate. God should anoint our heads, a slave should wash our feet, right? They are way down there for a reason – they are dirty, they are smelly! They are functional – they get us where we need to go, that’s about it. Why can’t they just be left to themselves under the table while we share a meal together? Would it not be more appropriate for us to at least wash our own feet?
“Unless I wash you,” Christ says “you will have no inheritance with me.” That is not a suggestion, it is a fact.
Remember after Adam and Eve sinned. What was one of the first things that happened to them in the garden? They became spiritually inhibited. They hid from God, they covered themselves. They were no longer comfortable in his presence. They no longer were comfortable with him ministering to them, they felt unworthy of his love and care for them.
Christ has come to heal this division, to wipe away this reticence, this inhibition in his presence. We are no longer strangers, he says, but friends. When we come to receive his most holy Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he invites us to enter the Holy of Holies, the Heavenly Jerusalem. Here, his love is poured out for us, his friends, at the intimate setting of his own table. He calls us in this Eucharist to share in his own inheritance, to be members of his family.
And this should be humbling. It should be overwhelming, that God would wash our feet, would care about our daily lives, the road we travel, the places we walk. That he would want us to be refreshed – not just in some esoteric way – some heady theological way – but from our heads to our toes. That he would come down from heaven and take the form of a slave so that we can walk with him in newness of life.
In a homily on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict spoke about Jesus washing our feet. And I would like to close with his words:
“God is not a remote God, too distant or too great to be bothered with our trifles. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with small things.
God's holiness is not merely an incandescent power before which we are obliged to withdraw, terrified. It is a power of love and therefore a purifying and healing power.
God descends and becomes a slave, he washes our feet so that we may come to his table. In this, the entire mystery of Jesus Christ is expressed. In this, what redemption means becomes visible.
The basin in which he washes us is his love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power which washes the grime from us and elevates us to God's heights.
The basin that purifies us is God himself, who gives himself to us without reserve - to the very depths of his suffering and his death.”