Monday, March 26, 2012

Just What IS the Point of Foot Washing?

Foot washing at 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly

I suppose I should begin with a confession/disclaimer.  I have issues with being touched by people I don't know.  

This did not use to be a bad thing.  We used to have certain social boundaries that I kind of wish we still had. 

Like I don't appreciate the store checker, whom I do not know, reading my check and calling me by my first name as though we were good friends.  It used to mean something when you called someone by their first name.  It meant you had a relationship.  But you had to earn that relationship.  It didn't' just happen because you started calling each other by first names.

This is what I'm getting at.  Everyone wants community and God forbid "intimacy" but they don't' really want to work at  it.  

The guy at the large public worship service wants the right to hug me without earning my trust.  I don't understand how the fact that we are both at a public worship service gives him the right to grab me and force his body against me in a hug during the peace after I've kindly extended my hand to him for a handshake.  That's not peace.  It's not community.  It's certainly not intimacy.  It's rude and selfish.  The opposite of what the peace is supposed to be about.

So what's this got to do with foot washing?  Well, it's a long-standing church tradition to follow Jesus' example and wash each others feet on Maundy Thursday.  No church I've served at has had that practice and I haven't felt called to introduce it.  I would do it if I had to.  But I would not like it.  

So that fun new ELCA clergy facebook likes to argue about this a lot.  Some people do a hand washing because people are kind of funny about having their feet washed.  Some say this an innovation that is not helpful and not scriptural (unless you want to remember Pilate washing his own hands).  Me?  I don't want to do either one but if pressed, I'd have to go with the traditional foot washing.  

What bothers me about the argument is how many people say this is such a powerful, moving "intimate" practice.  And there's always that hint that people like me who  don't want people touching my feet are being like Peter who didn't want Jesus to wash his feet.  

But this practice is not about intimacy or having a "powerful experience" in worship.  

It's a symbol of humble SERVICE.  I'm not even sure Jesus meant for us to copy it and do exactly that in a liturgy.  I think he meant for us to,  you know, go out and SERVE people HUMBLY.  Like maybe we should go wash each others toilets.

Kings and Popes used to go out and wash beggars feet on Maundy Thursday.  

That was very nice.  Of course, at the end of the day, Kings were kings and popes were popes and beggars were beggars.  Probably the beggars did not feel as warm and fuzzy as the kings and popes did.

So it's fine to wash feet on Maundy Thursday and if I had to I would.  But if we really want intimacy and community, we don't achieve that instantly by a festival of inappropriate touching. 

I think the best way to create community is to work together in service, working together to make a world where there's an equal place at the table for kings and popes and beggars.  

We do it by the hard work of humility, of kings and popes and beggars, and everyone between, working together, listening to each other.  Instead of washing feet, let's listen to each other.  

The latest horror of the killing of Trayvon Martin showed me  whites need to listen to blacks more.  

Instead of washing someone else's feet, maybe we all need to just clean out our ears.  

And then, after we've worked together, learned to trust one another, listened to each other, then probably you can hug me AND wash my feet.  Or not.


  1. I do NOT want to have my feet washed, or wash the feet or any other body part of anyone else. I would rather stay home on Maundy Thursday then go to a service with foot washing.

  2. Well to be fair Kate, I don't think anyone is ever forced to do it - usually it's just a few people (which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me) or it's an option. But there is that peer pressure - like why aren't YOU playing?

  3. Exactly. Would rather stay home and put my dirty feet up ;)

  4. I've never been to a place where they have done foot washing in which the persons being washed weren't pre-arranged as representatives of the whole assembly. Maybe once I've seen it where someone might opt to join in, but I've not seen it as a general come-one-and-all kind of thing.

    The Maundy Thursday practice I really like, and would like to advocate is the individual pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins at the confession at the beginning of that service. In my congregation, the whole assembly comes forward, much like we do for the Eucharist. We come to the baptismal font at the head of the center aisle, instead of kneeling and laying on hands, the pastors dip their hand in the baptismal water and trace a cross on the forehead of each with the words "In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins." Not only does it mark the deep connection or repentance and forgiveness to baptism, and our being marked with the cross of Christ at our own baptisms, but it also washes with water the same mark made with ashes just over six weeks before. It is such a deeply meaningful and profound gesture.

  5. Mark I have always done that ritual (not always with the water though but that's a good addition) and yes it is very very meaningful and powerful.

  6. well... i have done the footwashing in an entirely different context than MT... on a ski trip with 50 youth in small groups of 5 per circle with a bowl of water, fluffy towels, and a pair of new cushy socks for each person. The youth washed one another's feet after skiing all day... and that was humble service. It worked there... but

    on MT where I serve we do not have the tradition. But the link I like to make is that JEsus washed what was considered, least and lowly, and to some gross and disgusting, maybe even repulsive. ANd Jesus asks us to go serve and wash in the waters of Baptism those who are considered the least and lowly, the gross, the people who fill us with disgust, the people we might even find repulsive.

  7. yes I've done it in a youth mission trip context, which was as I suggested done AFTER we served together. And my point is that I think perhaps washing each other's already clean feet is like the King washing the beggars feet, we might feel all noble and humble, but in the end there are still kings and beggars and we have done nothing to change that. Also I do kind of bristle at the suggestion that just because I don't feel comfortable having strangers touch my bare feet that I'm any less willing to serve all people than someone without such compunctions.

  8. I first experienced footwashing on MT during Internship, and then at our final worship at seminary before graduation. Both were very moving for very different reasons. As I did footwashing on MT in the congregation I served, it was always voluntary and some would request hands, due to limited physical abilities, but with the washing went a prayer for God's blessings as we ministered to others, and I now find MT without footwashings-blessings lacking. Maybe it is a sign of better personal times in ministry, and maybe it is just a desire for me that I could physically still knelldown to wash serve someone else.

  9. We have that tradition where I am; anyone who wishes may have their feet washed (only you have to remember to wear socks; it's a touch problematical if you are wearing tights). I think the idea is that the clergy are seen to serve their congregation, rather than being "six feet above contradiction" as so many (not you!!!) seem to be.

    And yes, it can demand a great deal of trust - I dislike it and almost never volunteer, but there is never any pressure. I'd rather wash my congregation's feet, to be honest.

    What I do like, on Maundy Thursday, and it hasn't happened for 20 years since the particular vicar that did it died, is being anointed with oil.

    One clergyman of my acquaintance didn't wash his congregation's feet, but he prepared and served them a meal on Maundy Thursday, which I think has much the same effect, and is arguably more practical.

  10. Making a meal for your congregation. I could get into that. Depending upon how many people...could be a challenge.

  11. Washing feet doesn't mean all that much in our culture because our feet aren't dirty and dusty. Maybe smelly... But it is too cool this time of year to be without socks anyway.

    Somebody just told me that in Jesus' day, nobody washed other people's feet, they washed their own feet. The servants didn't do it either, so Jesus doing it was way out of ordinary. I've seen a movie with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. It was very moving. But I can't see how washing each other's feet would mean much.

  12. Thanks. I agree with a lot of your points, most of all with what you say about cleaning our ears first. I too have always had an issue with the forced intimacy of our footwashing ritual ... And with the fact that in the original situation there was a deep connection between Jesus and the disciples -- a connection we usually don't have (or don't have to that degree) with our parishioners.

  13. Thanks for this post, I agree! I haven't been in a context where footwashing was a thing, nor would I suggest it. If people find it moving and meaningful, then I think that's great, but I don't appreciate it when people assume that I'm some cold-hearted you-know-what because I don't want to touch others' feet or have my own touched. Or that I might not want to hug a total stranger or even a colleague. I don't like being made to feel like my personal space/touch boundaries somehow mean that I'm less of a Christian because I don't want to participate. Thanks for naming these nuances in this post! :)