This foot washing thing is a slightly strange ritual – before I became a priest on Maundy Thursday I used to give my feet a quick pre-wash and wear sandals in case I was picked to have my feet wash , to avoid the embarrassment of smelly feet. And part of me is quite glad that as a priest I now do the washing instead of having my feet washed.
This act has lost the incredible power it had when Jesus did it the first time – he and his friends were sitting having a celebratory meal, wearing their good clothes and suddenly he gets up, puts on a towel and kneels down on the floor, and washes those smelly, dusty, mucky, stinky feet.
It is meaningful that this symbol involves washing. Today one of the greatest challenges we face as a world community is that of clean water and sewerage. At the one extreme we have people who have washing machines, dish washers, tumble dryers, and more bathrooms than people in the house. At the other, we have people who carry water long distances on their heads, and wash their clothes in plastic basins, families who share one outside toilet between several homes. In South Africa communal toilets are often dirty and dangerous as young women who go outside in the middle of the night to use them are at risk of rape.
So what then does the symbol of foot washing mean for us today?
I think firstly on the level of our churches it is a symbol of community. There is a wonderful poem by a Scottish poet, Maureen Sangster (which I have paraphrased into a much more boring English!)
Oh Christ you’re just a minister
You’re nae bloody use to me
You wouldna come and make
My mother’s cup of tea
You’re a stuck up little mannie
Bawking out yer words of Love
For Gods sake come down tae earth
And wear the oven glove
What is this Messiah for
That I must lose my life
Caring for my mother
While my brother has a wife?
If you’d come round on Sunday
Give me a helping hand
One shot of handling the commode
And you would understand
My life is just a constant round
Of meals and bloody peels
If the hand of God is in this, Christ
Its a mystery not revealed.
Within our church community there are many people who feel burdened by the daily round of caring for the old or the young – days filled with washing commodes, washing clothes and sheets, changing nappies, washing dishes. How can we as a church become a real community to those who need us to offer to assist them with their washing?
I remember meeting a pastor from a wonderful church in Nairobi, which had experienced amazing church growth. When I asked (with a tinge of jealousy) how they had achieved it he said that when AIDS was really bad their numbers dropped off terribly. So they visited church members and harangued them to come back to church. But they realised that many of them could not come to church, and had to stay at home to look after sick family members or neighbours. So they changed their strategy and instead of preaching at people to come back to church, they offered them respite care – they stayed with the family member, and offered to wash some dishes, or change an adult diaper, or rinse out a commode while the exhausted person went to church. It is that community-in – action that made the church grow.
What can we learn – what assistance can we give to single mums, carers of the housebound, those who are too frail to get to church without a lift or can’t afford the bus fare? Can offering a home communion be linked with some practical support? Instead of washing feet, can we rinse out a commode? Can we assist single mums with some child minding, wash some clothes, wash some dishes? How can ‘foot washing’ become part of our life as a church community?
On a second and community level – the story of the foot washing is a symbol of the challenge we face to work for a just society – where all have access to clean water, safe sewerage facilities. A society where all can wash with clean water.
In our local township Khayelitsha part of the community was built with communal toilets . In order to save money these toilets were built with no walls – People had to go to the toilet with a blanket over their heads for privacy.
Our archbishop took up the challenge and helped to mobilise religious leaders against this – for a while he was dubbed the ‘toilet archbishop’ . What a high honour in the Kingdom of God, instead of being given an honorary Phd from an eminent institution , to be called the toilet archbishop. I think Jesus would be proud….
Rev Rachel Mash
Anglican Church of Southern Africa
(inspired by ‘After Virtue’ by Martyn Percy – in darkness yielding)