Foot-washing – a touchy subject

Peter Seal, 1 April 2021

Exodus 12: 1–14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23–26; John 13: 1–17, 31b–35

Foot-washing is a touchy subject. It’s hard to overcome our quite understandable reluctance to allow another person to kneel at our feet and to care for them, by washing them.

Tonight is a challenging night in many ways – not least the picture of our Lord and master, as a servant, doing a slave’s work. It was too much for Judas; he wanted a warrior king. It was nearly too much for Peter, who just couldn’t understand. Can you blame him? It’s too much for many folk today, who just don’t want someone else to wash their feet, however clean they already are!

Taking our shoes and socks off can be a challenge; we resist having bare feet. Englishmen abroad amuse our more relaxed European neighbours by wearing socks in their sandals.

To go barefoot is something most of us rarely do. And yet it’s deeply biblical. When Moses was called aside to see and engage with the burning bush, one of his first instructions was, ‘Come no closer. Remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground’ (Exodus 3: 5).

A less well-known barefoot occasion is encountered in the book of Joshua, when he has a vision of an angel with a drawn sword. That angel’s command is similar: ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy’ (Joshua 5: 25). We’re told that the prophet Isaiah walked ‘naked and barefoot’ for three years (Isaiah 20: 3). As a result, Isaiah is often shown barefoot in religious art. Luke the Evangelist sends the ‘seventy others’ out in pairs: ‘Go on your way … Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’ (Luke 10: 4).

Down the years different significant holy people have responded to this barefoot challenge. Francis and Clare of Assisi are the most obvious examples. To them can be added Teresa of Avila, who founded the ‘barefoot Carmelites’; Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits; and Dominic, founder of the Dominicans.

To travel barefoot demands attentive walking. It can become a meditative prayer in itself. It’s interesting how we use the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ to talk of those who walk lightly upon the earth. The number of pairs of shoes we own probably says something about our spirituality.

So tonight, the first challenge the Lord may be making to each of us is to ask ourselves, ‘How lightly, or otherwise, do I walk on this earth? What’s my relationship with that which is under my feet? Am I, as a bodily being, in touch with the material nature of creation?’

Once, so to speak, we’ve got our socks off, then God’s work can continue. And that’s where we find ourselves tonight: in imagination, at least, all of us barefoot and gathered around the table of the first Last Supper; but in the year of our Lord 2021, and frustratingly restricted from being together by this wretched ongoing pandemic.

The biblical account of the foot-washing is the most striking example of humility in the gospels. In fact it’s so extraordinary that it arrests our attention afresh each and every year.

The foot-washing was both a practical act of service and an example to be followed. The foot-washing constitutes both an invitation to learn a lesson, and an example to follow. It’s recorded and handed down to us not to provoke our admiration, but our emulation.

The foot-washing is meant to touch us – literally, but also in our imaginations – and to set us wondering: ‘Could I do that?’ ‘Would I do that?’ ‘Should I do that?’ and ‘Shall I do that?’ Jesus’ example is meant to challenge our aspirations, to suggest to us that we should learn to do as he did, but in this our day.

The questions the foot-washing provoke embolden us to face reality and enter into the vulnerability of risk-taking. This is the very point of foot-washing. Both the one who washes feet and those who have their feet washed make themselves vulnerable. They experience together a new way of being, an intimacy of relating, that was not there before.

Both the one who washes feet and those who have their feet washed make themselves vulnerable.

For those disciples then, and for us tonight, it was not so much that the feet needed a wash; but that disciples then, and now, need a new set of attitudes.

Tonight, as is right and proper, we keep Maundy Thursday in the most beautiful way we can. Mary, Liz and I feel deeply the frustration of not being able to be together with each of you.

In conclusion, there’s nothing pretty or prissy about foot-washing. We cannot but feel uncomfortable. First, we are asked to bare our feet. Secondly, in this humbled state we learn that we’ve got some re-learning to do. Thirdly, we are challenged to ask ourselves, ‘Who are the most needy in my life? Who is it that I am called to serve? And how can I best do it?’ Amen.