March 28, 2013

Feet, or Hands?

As we gather this evening to observe Maundy Thursday, many of us will be invited to participate in the ritual of foot-washing. For some, our feet will be washed by our parish priest. For others, we will engage in serving one another, having our feet washed by the person in front of us, and then in turn washing the feet of the person behind us.

For me, the latter practice is the more meaningful. It reinforces for me that in being sealed as Christ’s own, we are bound together in a web of mutual servanthood. I hold within the moment when I sat while a student who had suffered a sports injury laid aside his crutches, carefully knelt to support himself on his good knee while he lowered the more painful one, took my feet, and carefully washed them. His commitment was palpable; his determination to participate beyond his physical discomfort was a gift.

As he rose and offered me his hand, I carried his gift of servanthood with me as I in turn moved onto my knees and carefully took into my hands the foot of an elderly professor. One by one, our servanthood in relationship with one another accumulated, snowballed, grew to fill the chapel as we received and gave of our selves, one by one.

I have become aware in recent years that for some congregations the practice is instead to wash one another’s hands.

I confess that I scoffed when I first heard of this: No, foot washing is not convenient. It’s not easy. It’s messy. That’s the point! I look down my nose at people who think it’s OK to “just do our hands instead” because they don’t want to go through all the hassle of taking off their shoes. They don’t want to expose their feet. They don’t want to get water all over the place and have to clean it up.

My second reaction was a scornful, “And besides, doesn’t this turn us all into Pilate?” How can we possibly justify moving from the deepest symbolic act that Jesus purposely engaged to set an example for his followers—not just the 12 who were gathered, but all his followers across time and space forever and ever amen—to an equally powerful symbolic act of dismissal?

But now I’m having second thoughts.

Maybe there’s something to this hand washing thing, this Pilate thing.

What if we were to approach this as a moment of truth-telling? What if we could take a hard look at ourselves and admit that we all too often do wash our hands of it, whatever “it” may be….

…I wish we had better health care for everyone, but what can I do? It is what it is.

…I hate seeing so many people come to the end of their unemployment benefits, but what can I do? At least we support the food pantry.

…I know that child is in a bad situation, but my hands are tied.

…There must be a more sustainable solution, but how would it work?

Perhaps there is value in confronting those Pilate moments that challenge our baptism in everyday life. I don’t mean this as a guilt trip (though it could certainly be a big one!). Rather, I am pondering the possibilities, wondering what sparks of commitment, what seeds of ministry might come from admitting that in many ways we weren’t there when they crucified our Lord.

How might we engage hand washing not as a convenient substitute for the messy work of foot washing, but as an invitation to transformation?

This blog originally appeared in Lisa's "Mainestewards" blog on March 28, 2013. It is reprinted with permission.