Wednesday, March 14, 2018

the humility of washing our feet...

Today we're getting the brunt of the third Nor'Easter in 10 days that should have pummeled us yesterday. It is beautiful, but relentless. A pretty crazy Lent, for sure. All of the snow reminds me of an early complaint vigorously voiced when I suggested reclaiming the ancient foot washing ceremony for Maundy Thursday. "It would be too messy given all the boots and snow to do that here," was the consensus. Being a newbie I wasn't quite ready to call BS yet. But I did observe that snow boots and wool socks are a hell of a lot cleaner than the feet of Jesus and the disciples back in first century Palestine. The nay sayers prevailed - and I backed off. We made a few other lukewarm attempts at honoring this command from Jesus in John 13: 1-17, but the resistance was fierce. It is, after all, the most humbling of all liturgical acts and many 21st century people find the bold physicality too intense. Jean Vanier offers an insight into our resistance in a selection from "Living Gently in a Violent World." He writes: 

As we live with people who have been crushed, as we begin to welcome the stranger, we will gradually discover the stranger inside of us. When we welcome the broken outside, they call us to discover the broken inside. We cannot really enter into relationship with people who are broken unless somehow we deal with our own brokenness. I am not saying we have to go through psychotherapy. But what are we hiding? Or what are we hiding behind? We must discern our natural inner protectiveness and compulsive attitudes. Somewhere we are hiding our weaknesses.

Our bourgeois illusions of control run so deep. They plague me nearly every day. In reading Henri Nouwen's journal, The Road to Daybreak, I came across his description of attending the foot-washing ceremony at a L'Arche community in Paris. The community leader proclaimed the Gospel for the day, then stood and began to wash the feet of those who had gathered.

During supper Jesus... got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him... After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you: servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them... This is my new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 13: 1-34)

Nouwen was moved to his soul by the experience of foot washing and Eucharist at L'Arche. He wrote, "Sitting in the basement room in Paris surrounded by forty poor people, I was struck again by the way Jesus concluded his active life. Just before entering on the road of his passion, he washed the feet of his disciples and offered them his body and blood as food and drink."

These two acts belong together. They are both an expression of God's determination to show us the fullness of his love. Therefore John introduces the story of the washing of the disciples' feet with the words, "Jesus... having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end." What is even more astonishing is that on both occasions Jesus commands us to do the same. (Daybreak, p. 158)

Nouwen concludes saying that as he saw the community leader wash the feet of his friends and give them the bread and wine, "it seemed as if - for the moment - I saw a glimpse of the new kingdom Jesus came to bring." I believe that is why I so cherish this ceremony, too. It exposes both my deepest wounds and my heart's desire to love as Jesus loved me. In that moment, at least as I experience it, both the blessings and the brokenness are embodied in real time, flesh and blood. 

That is why foot washing is essential to my faith. I do not want to seem scolding in this lament. I have had the privilege repeatedly of holding all types of feet in my weary hands: young feet, gnarled feet, broken feet and whole. I have had my arches bathed gently and dried respectfully by an ancient church elder one year only to repeat the encounter in the presence of an innocent confirmand the next. I have washed the feet of people I loved and those I mistrusted. I have experienced being humbled by the reverence of women, men and children as well as serving some close to the start of life and others who would die before the arrival of Pentecost. All of this, and so much more, changes the heart. Mine has been broken and mended time and again. For in the course of 90 minutes, the sacred mysteries of life are unveiled in the most ordinary manner. We move into the rhythm of suffering and solidarity - the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is rehearsed as well as God's promise to each and all of us - we taste darkness, light, and confusion alongside trust, poetry and human touch. 

It is sloppy and sacred, holy and human all at the same time. No wonder Jesus commanded us to do this among one another. It will be the heart of my Lenten prayers to join L'Arche Ottawa for this ceremony later this month.

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a spirituality of l'arche - part five

NOTE: I thought I would finish this series up earlier this week but on my way to some commitments, as John Lennon used to say, life happened...