Last year at this time, I was working in New York City and living in New Jersey. I was serving a church very close to where I lived, and it brought a new meaning to what I considered a “home parish.” Besides the close proximity to my home (directly next door), I ended up helping out in the office in the evenings. When Hurricane Sandy hit, my roommates and I really dove in with damage control, helping the parish to shelter those who lost their homes. It was the most exhausting and humbling thing I’d done with a team of people at a church. That sort of thing bonds you to a place.
A few months later, Lent was upon us, and the church was on the lookout for extra bodies for the ritual of the foot washing on Holy Thursday. This is the act of washing each other’s feet as a sign of service and humility, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples before his crucifixion. I had heard of this ritual, but I had neither seen nor experienced it. My interest provoked me to volunteer.
Despite the growing affection I had for this parish, the priest and I didn’t quite get along most days. Call it personality incompatibility; call it a bad first impression — whatever it was, we were certainly not “besties.” I was worried that our disagreements would inhibit us in this Holy Thursday scene on the altar — after all, washing someone’s feet in today’s world isn’t common, or understood the same way. It makes you feel extremely vulnerable, even in the context of role-play.
The day of the ritual, I sat on the altar in a chair with fellow parishioners, awaiting the bowl of water. It was terribly awkward to take off my shoes in front of the entire congregation (though some had the struggle of taking off their socks, so I counted my blessings). We waited in silence as the priest got down on his knees with a washcloth and started soaking our feet, taking his time with each one. I couldn’t help but look at his carriage the entire time; he looked humbler than I had ever seen. When he finally came to me, he was crouched: focusing on my feet, and the task at hand. I don’t entirely know what I was expecting out of this moment, but I was surprised by its simplicity.
Perhaps it was the silence, or the way he carried himself, or the gentle grasp he used to clean my feet. It was almost as if, in that moment, he wasn’t simply one priest I had encountered, but rather had assumed the position of all priests in their service to the Church. Despite our tense and somewhat broken relationship, even as acquaintances, he still chose this act of mercy and humility. It made me realize how unimportant our disagreements were, and how important this ritual was for forgiveness and perspective. Christ led by example, and here we are, still washing each other’s feet, despite our daily struggles as brothers and sisters. In this act, we move past our own desires and become consumed with the one we are serving. This transcends what we have done and focuses on who we are: Disciples of Christ. Through this ritual, we align ourselves with all servants throughout history.
Last year when Pope Francis participated in the Holy Thursday foot washing ritual, he broke a few traditions, most notably washing the feet of Muslims and women. He turned a few heads to say the least, but I admire his humble simplicity. He wasn’t trying to gain massive media attention; he was simply serving the ones who needed to be served. By his actions, he showed no preoccupation with gender, religion, ethnicity or ability; he chose true service.
In his own words (translated), Francis said, “This is a symbol; it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service.” I learned an example of what true service meant that day.
So this year, I answered the “What did you remember most about today?” question with a simple “remembering the feet washing.” A simple answer for a simple lesson. My definition of service changed a little that Holy Thursday — all because of a moment in time when someone knelt down and washed my feet as Jesus did with his 12 disciples. I felt like, in that moment, I was on the receiving end of true service. And now that I have a small glimpse of what it looks like, I can better work toward true service to others in the future.