HOLY THURSDAY: WASHING FEET

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There’s such a sense of anticipation on Holy Thursday, I find. It is the start of the Triduum, the three days that form a single celebration marking the end of Lent: from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday to Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. During this intense and sacred time, we journey through the Last Supper to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We know how things will turn out, but lingering on each day, each event, makes the experience so much richer.

As people gather for Mass on Holy Thursday, you can feel the tension and expectation in the air. As the liturgy begins, it carries us with it. After the homily, something amazing happens: the ritual of the washing of the feet. (Sadly, this ritual is optional. I hope you get to experience it.)

Taking your shoes and socks off in church feels a bit strange, but in this case, strange is good. We are suddenly vulnerable. Our feet may not look perfect. Maybe they’re a bit sweaty. Still, here we are. Someone we know (or maybe we don’t know them) kneels before us, pours warm water on our tender feet, rubs them dry with a soft towel, gives us a shy smile. Humbled, we quickly put our socks and shoes back on, then maybe it’s our turn. Now we’re face-to-face with someone else’s naked feet. The person may seem a bit uncomfortable, but that’s okay. In silence, we wash their feet, as Jesus instructed his disciples (us!) in tonight’s Gospel. It’s a profound connection with him two thousand years after the original act.

The foot washing is powerful, no matter what. But sometimes what happens stays with you for a long time. One year, a close friend’s mother died suddenly early in Holy Week. When he arrived at Mass on Holy Thursday, he was still shaken up. Washing his feet that evening, I could see past the strong, positive façade that most of us usually present to the world and find the real person – the one with needs, fears, hopes. Often we don’t know what others are going through, but in this case, knowing gave me some insight into how washing each other’s feet could help the world. Then it was my turn. One of my young friends, age 7 or so, was participating as a foot washer for the first time. He was confident and sweet as he poured the water and then dried off my feet. I was in good hands.

Fast forward a few years: I was back at my former parish for a visit during the Triduum. As I sat to have my feet washed, a parishioner whom I had known only slightly exclaimed, “There you are! I was just wondering what had happened to you!” That was a beautiful moment. I imagine that’s what Jesus would say to one of his lost sheep.

Last year, most churches were closed for the Triduum. We didn’t gather on Holy Thursday; we didn’t wash each other’s feet. This year, churches are mostly open, but for a small number of people. We won’t be washing feet. But that’s not the end of the story. It might just be the beginning of a new understanding of the ritual.

If we look around, we can see foot washing happening everywhere: the parent reassuring and encouraging children or teens; the health care worker tending to the sick and the dying; the teacher guiding students through a roller-coaster year; the bus driver taking people where they need to go; the daycare provider helping little ones feel safe; the person patiently supporting their spouse who has dementia; grocery store staff keeping the shelves stocked; and the list goes on.

While the Holy Thursday liturgy offers us a meaningful ritual about service, our daily lives are filled with opportunities to live out that calling.

“So 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 13:14-15)

May it be so, on this day and always.

Anne Louise Mahoney is Managing Editor of Novalis. She is the editor of the soon-to-be-published book Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here (Novalis, 2021). 

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