St. John records for us the washing of the Disciples’ feet by Jesus before the Last Supper. Peter is embarrassed and doesn’t want to let Jesus wash his feet—not realizing that Jesus has already washed him entirely, for they are already clean because of the word Jesus had spoken to them [15:3]. Peter is already clean, he just needs a little clean up. That Peter needed a little cleaning is, of course, not what bothers Peter. What bothers him is that the Lord and Master wants to do the cleaning, a job normally done by the lowest servant of the house.
In Middle Eastern culture, feet are generally considered unclean. Consequently, lifting one’s heal at someone (exposing the bottom of one’s foot or shoe) is a great insult. It is no coincident that immediately after washing the Disciple’s feet, Jesus cites psalm 41:9: “He who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me.” By washing all of the Disciples’ feet, including Judas’, Jesus willingly exposes himself to every humiliation that can be poured out on him. If the story ended there, we would merely have another example of the great condescension of God in Christ. If Jesus hadn’t gone on to interpret his actions for us, we could breathe a deep sigh of relief: “Jesus has done great things for us.” But Jesus does interpret his actions: “You ought to wash one another’s feet…I have given you an example…blessed are you if you do them.”
That’s the difficult thing. It is difficult not only because I do not like exposing myself to insult and humiliation, but it is also difficult because I do not have more than a glimmer of an idea what washing other’s feet means in my life today. Washing feet has no emotional impact for me. It’s not embarrassing. It’s not particularly humbling. Now what is humbling and embarrassing to me is to wash the whole body of a disabled adult. Or to wash the dead body of a fellow priest, especially one whom I have known and respected. (In the rites associated with the death of a priest, fellow priests wash the whole body of the departed priest with water, rub it with oil and then dress him as though he were standing at the Altar.) I have only done this once. I’d like to be able to report that it was a deeply moving and spiritual experience—other priests have told me that such was their experience when they have been called upon to perform this act of love. I, on the other hand, felt so awkward and conflicted that I performed my responsibilities as though in a fog. I didn’t let myself think or feel anything. That was five years ago, and still I am processing the experience.
Nurses and care givers (and morticians) wash the bodies of others regularly, so perhaps this image doesn’t help them get at what Jesus was getting at. In fact, “washing” in any literal sense is not at all what Jesus is talking about. Jesus says later that the Disciples are clean because of the word he has spoken to them. And it is from this that I can get a clue as to how this lesson might apply in my life. The words that I speak have the power to cleanse or defile others. What I say can bring encouragement, hope, life; and what I say can bring cynicism, despair, death. When I am with others and the conversation exposes their heels (the dirty part of their soul slips out through their mouth), what will I do? Will I answer in kind, letting out of my mouth equally defiling accusations, innuendos, complaints or cynicisms? Or will I be quiet—always a good choice when you “can’t say something nice”—and bury in myself the filth of my friend? Or, if by God’s Grace I have an uplifting thing to say, will I say that, and perhaps wash a little the feet of my friend?
Lovingly bathing the filth off the body of another is humiliating work, especially as we realize that the same filth we bathe off another is also produced by our own bodies (and souls).