Maundy Thursday: Washing Feet Can Transform Society
By: Hannah Adams Ingram
I must start with a confession: although I am a “cradle Christian,” Maundy Thursday didn’t mean too much to me when I was growing up. In fact, I’m one of those that pronounces it Maun-day instead of Maundy, even after accumulating theology degrees and spending the past several years in a church tradition that is a bit more liturgically inclined than that of my youth. I remember reading the foot washing story at church, though, and then moving quickly into communion, the real focus of our Maundy Thursday service, to be followed by the most depressing service of the year on Good Friday. The Thursday service didn’t make much of an impression on me because I was in a church that celebrated communion every week anyway, always reading the same passages about “that night Jesus was betrayed.” That’s how we marked Maundy Thursday—with a second helping of crackers and juice that week.
This all changed when I went to college at a small liberal arts university affiliated with the Wesleyan holiness movement. They did not just quickly read the foot washing part of the Maundy Thursday in order to get to another ritual of communion, but instead, they considered foot washing to be a sacred ordinance that Jesus demonstrated by example and commanded us to continue. I wept the first time someone washed my feet; in fact, I weep every time someone washes my feet and anytime I have the honor of washing someone else’s feet. As I reflect on this passage from John and on my own experience of foot washing, I want to share three insights.
1. Foot washing is an act of humility.
I’ve often heard people explain that Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in this account was transgressive (and icky) because feet were so dirty in those times, due to the prevalence of walking with sandaled feet. Only servants in those times would suffer the indignity of feet washing. I am amused by this explanation because I also hear plenty of people today say they could never participate in foot washing because it’s similarly “icky,” or they just have a “thing” about feet. While I am pastorally sensitive to people and their various “things,” I also honor the Christian tradition of pushing us all past our “things.” Jesus provides us an example of what it means to put someone else above oneself and for a moment, disciplining the self in the face of a vision of what the world would be like if we all served each other.
It is important to note, though, that this message somewhere along the way got gendered. Historically, women have been encouraged to put others above themselves in often harmful ways, while men have sometimes received the opposite message. We must always take great care when we affirm the sacrificial humility of Christ, discerning how this powerful exemplar can challenge Western self-centeredness and when it might otherwise be oppressive to those who never put themselves first. Perhaps there is a corrective for this even within the ritual itself: none of us can humble ourselves and wash another’s feet if we cannot first learn to humble ourselves in order to have our own feet washed. We must all serve and be served.
2. Foot washing is an act of intimacy.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit what many people are thinking: washing the feet of a stranger, or even a friend is… intimate. Yes. Not only do we frequently cover our feet in public for their own protection, we also know our feet are stinky and sweaty. Imagine for a second the act of someone gently touching your feet—washing them with water, rubbing them with a drying towel. This act is so unusual that the thought of it likely makes people feel uncomfortable. And yet, this is part of the beauty of the act. In societies and churches run by the demands of production and perfection, the act of someone seeing our impurities—our sweaty, stinky feet—and touching us still, is transformative. Not only is it important that we are willing to touch each other, but we must be willing to be touched, just as we are.
3. Foot washing can transform society.
There is a dominant narrative in the U.S. that who we are as individuals is more important than who we are together as a community. At its best, our church rituals offer a counter-narrative to this assumption. Foot washing proclaims the power of finding cleansing, or perhaps redemption, together. I cannot wash my own feet; I must wait for someone else to do so for me. There is something in this act that bonds us together so that I am no longer an individual seeking clean feet, but we only become clean together by serving one another and opening ourselves up to be served.
“For I have set you an example”
The story in John ends in a funny way: it both acknowledges that this must have been confusing to Peter and the other disciples, and it also tells readers and listeners that they are to follow Jesus’s example anyway. As Jesus humbled himself and washed the feet of those in the room, we are to do the same. Yes, we should do so metaphorically, but there is also real power in the ritual as well because it demands not just our mind’s agreement, but our body’s’ participation. Of course our various denominational traditions will land in different wholly respectable places on this, but at the very least, I hope that the power of this story shines this Holy Week, as opposed to being offered only as the simplistic prologue to the Last Supper.
Hannah Adams Ingram is a PhD candidate at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, with a research focus in public practical theology. She is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.