Grace and Truth: A word from pastors
I was first. I took off my shoes and socks and sat down on a chair. Jen was next in line. She knelt down, took my bare foot in her hand and held it over the basin. She picked up the pitcher, poured some water and washed my feet. In turn I washed Dirk’s feet. One by one I held his feet in my hands. When finished, I returned to my pew and watched a stream of friends and strangers take their turn at the basin.
The room was silent, except for the constant flow of water—poured over feet, splashing into the metal basin, echoing in a quiet room. I thought to myself, Are these the sights and sounds of a revolution?
I know this may sound like a stretch. Washing feet during a Maundy Thursday service at church doesn’t look very radical. Revolutions are usually much noisier—a lot more shouting, broken windows, fires, overturned cars, perhaps some gunshots.
But this revolution came and went without a spectacle. Our foot washing service was a quiet revolution. Jonah, a child from our congregation, lay on a pew and slept through the event.
Some revolutions, writes Michel de Certeau, are “hidden in customs, rites and spatial practices.” These revolutionary activities don’t make the headlines. Instead, in his book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau describes revolutionary change that doesn’t register for those in power —everyday revolutions, a revolution that is “common and silent,” an “almost sheeplike subversion.” Maybe foot washing—the church’s intimate movement of love—qualifies as this kind of common and silent revolution.
As you bow down like a humble servant, your body learns the movements of Christs obedience, which ushers in God’s kingdom. This isn’t some ethereal or strictly spiritual reality. God’s revolution happens when you let someone take your dirty feet in her hands, because with those hands comes Christ’s love. These earthly and fleshly movements of love—the overflowing water, the gentle touch of hands and feet—is the caress of Christ’s tender love that draws us into the reign of God.
When Jesus gave his disciples the new commandment of love, he also told them how to learn the meaning of love: “So, if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Foot washing teaches us how to love. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” Jesus says (v. 34). When we wash feet, the communion of God’s love comes with our hands, with the water, and with the towel. We welcome the gift of God’s love with our hands and with our feet.
The goal of our revolution is communion, a union of love that breaks through alienation and estrangement. That’s why Jesus tells us to start with foot washing—a practice that breaks down walls of self-sufficiency and opens us to receive God’s loving care from another.
Jesus didn’t tell us to wash our own feet but to wash each other’s feet. For in letting someone wash our feet, we draw closer to our fundamental neediness; God’s sustaining grace washes over us. When our lives are joined together in mutual dependency, Christ’s love permeates our fellowship and “holds [us] together in a knot of unity,” as Augustine of Hippo wrote in On Christian Doctrine. This union of fellowship is the revolution of Christ’s love.
And that’s what I saw and felt (and smelled?) at our Maundy Thursday foot washing service—a reunion of bodies, bound together in love. Friends and strangers, bowed down before one another—an act of submission, of care, of love, a gesture of complete humility. We held the lowliest parts of each other’s bodies, exposing our clean hands to dirty feet. Our lives were woven together in a knot of unity, a communion of love, our union with God.
Sure, there’s nothing spectacular about this revolution. It’s much too quiet. Children nap. No one notices. Its hard to see how it changes anything. But that’s what everyone said about Jesus hanging on the cross. Little did they know that the slain Lamb ends up ruling the world.
Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur: “Our lamb has conquered; him let us follow.” Like de Certeau, we are also looking for sheeplike subversions.