I’ve never liked feet. Feet are just…nasty. Now, I can handle feet in socks and shoes because I don’t have to look at them, but anything with an open toe is over the top. And, no, I don’t have a single, specific reason why feet freak me out. I just know that feet—whether they’re clad in flip-flops, $100 sandals, or jellies à la 1988—are dirty, dusty, and just plain yuck.
Now, you may have noticed an obvious problem with my being grossed out by feet and worshipping in a liturgical tradition. You are, of course, wondering how I feel about Holy Thursday, with its infamous pedilavium? This ritual demands bare feet: touching bare feet, looking at bare feet, and points blazing hot lights on the actions of Jesus, who apparently did not find bare feet disgusting, but loved this dusty, sweaty, and most unattractive body part.
I can hear about the actions of Jesus and easily rationalize them to myself as “symbolic.” Washing feet is a symbol of service—we should be servants to one another, and do things we don’t want to do because we want to serve one another. The footwashing tells me that I should be the one to take on the chore that no one else wants: I should take out the trash this week—I should volunteer to be on the committee no one wants to join.
As for the ritual itself on Holy Thursday, we don’t all have to participate in this (nor does the rite stipulate that we must), because it’s intended to be symbolic. We could participate just as well by simply watching others have their feet washed. But, if we’re wanting the congregation to partake, we could take this ritual one step further—if it’s a symbol for service, we could just as well wash hands as feet on Holy Thursday night and avoid the whole “foot” thing altogether….
I will admit, through a long series of circumstances (most of which have to do with me conveniently needing to serve as accompanist throughout the duration of the foot-washing), I have never had my feet washed. But revealing this liturgically-implicating hang-up of mine is not the point of my story.
I’ve had a revelation about footwashing—which is likely obvious to souls more wise and less podophobic than my own. Footwashing is not about doing something radical (touching someone else’s foot) because you want to show service, or because you’re a nice person, or even because you love Jesus. Jesus didn’t mess around with the abstract. This symbol is real: he washed a foot because that’s exactly what he wanted us to do—love in the concrete. You wash a foot because you love, and you love the specific person whose foot you are washing. Not only would you wash that foot, but you would hold it, you would dry it with your hair, and you would kiss that very same foot. This is, of course, why Jesus’ discourse on love directly follows the footwashing in John 13.
I would not have imagined it would be possible to love so much that you would not only wash, but kiss someone’s feet—until I held someone with tiny fingers and toes, and counted each one to be sure they were all there.
This little one’s feet are not dirty (usually—and if they are, we’re in big trouble), and she can’t even completely control how her chubby limbs kick and stretch. But, when I’m with my little baby, I can’t help but cradle those tiny feet in my hand, and give them a kiss. This is how much I love my daughter, that I would kiss what (in my mind) is untouchable, let alone un-kissable. Yet my silly little way of loving is only a shadow of God’s love for us—we who are God’s own children, with our tiny hands and feet, flailing about, hardly knowing what we’re doing, attempting to do God’s work in the world.
So, once again, my way of looking at life and avoiding eye contact (or foot contact as the case may be) has been turned upside down by this mysterious little child. The smallest, the least among us, it seems, are the ones who break down our barriers of fear, invite to act in love and not simply watch, and to walk humbly toward our God.