The Washing of the Feet

David Oatney Catechism, Prayer

This past weekend those men of the Diocese of Knoxville who are presently in formation for the permanent diaconate, of which I am one, along with a majority of the wives of those men went on our annual retreat. It is often said (and our formation director Deacon Tim Elliott pointed out) that every retreat is different, and next year’s will likely be different from this one. However, on this retreat I experienced something that I have never experienced before outside of Mass as a Catholic, and specifically outside of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The theme forfootwashing our weekend was service, something critical in the life of any deacon or potential deacon. To underscore this important aspect of diaconal life, Father Michael Cummins, our retreat master, incorporated a service of the Washing of the Feet into our activities on Sunday morning.

Most Catholics view foot washing as something that only occurs on Holy Thursday, and then it only happens to them either because they are one of the veni selecti, the chosen 12 men asked to participate in the ritual of the priest(s) or deacon(s) washing their feet, or because their pastor may allow for a wider foot washing ritual, but one that is still wholly voluntary and confined to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. On our retreat, we were challenged (although certainly not forced) to wash the feet of another brother or sister, and to allow another to be blessed by washing our feet. Many of those wives who were present washed the feet of their husbands, many husbands washed the feet of their wives. Since Nicole was not with me (we couldn’t find anyone to care adequately for our animals while both of us would be out of pocket, so one of us had to stay behind) I washed the feet of one of my brother Aspirants, Larry Rossini, and our Diocesan Youth Director, Al Forsythe, did me the great honor of washing my feet.

It was wonderful on many levels to be able to participate in this service (we can truly call it that, as our foot-washing experience was entirely extra-liturgical). I felt blessed and humbled to be able to wash the feet of one of my brothers, and was equally humbled that one of my brothers asked to wash mine. It also spoke volumes that more than one of our brothers took it upon themselves to literally lift me off the floor after I had washed Larry’s feet. I was perfectly capable of getting back up, but I understood that I was blessing the men who were offering me a hand. They wanted to serve me as I wanted to serve them.

The most important part of this exercise for me was in observing others engage in it. Watching this service and the clear meaning for others (I could see it in many faces) brought back certain recollections for me. As some who read this blog may know, I am a convert. I was raised in an ecclesial community where this practice of washing feet was a regular custom performed twice a year or sometimes more than that. The sole purpose of this was to recall that Jesus himself had done this for his disciples, and so we should do it for one another (which is very true if we are to take Jesus at his word).

Jesus-washing-feet-01When I became Catholic, I began to understand that washing feet has a much deeper meaning than a mere case of “Jesus did it, we should too.” Jesus threw a public temper tantrum in the portico of the temple, but no serious student of Scripture would say that Jesus would have us mimic that action as believers. Instead, I came to see that Jesus was showing the apostles by example that they are to serve one another, and the most clear and obvious example of this was to wash their feet, and tell them to do likewise to each other. Father Michael Cummins pointed out in his reflections, for example, that in the ancient world the feet were the filthiest part of the body. People moved with their feet all the time and everywhere, and in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world of Christ, most people wore sandals. It was a mark of hospitality to provide your guests with a basin or bowl in which to wash their feet when they visited your home, because they usually had to walk to get there, and they needed it very badly. Hence, for Jesus to bend down and wash the apostles’ feet was the ultimate gesture of service rendered in love.

When I was in college, the late Father Chris Rohmiller, who I described once on my personal blog in some detail, decided one year to shake up our Holy Thursday observance when I was at Wright State University in a way that I am quite sure would make our Diocese of Knoxville Director of Worship and Liturgy, Father Randy Stice, cringe. Not only were those attending the Mass asked to wash one another’s feet, but Father had laid out large basins with water and soap. We literally scrubbed one another’s feet clean (the girl whose feet I washed was actually a fellow parishioner of mine at St. Joseph Church in downtown Dayton, Ohio, where I was on the rolls by then, but I continued to attend many Masses at the Newman Center at WSU in those days).

Was this an extra-liturgical practice that the liturgy does not allow for? Without question. Anyone who knows anything about the rubrics knows that it in no way provides for a soap-and-water foot bath at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, let alone that laity should perform this foot bath on other members of the laity. Did engaging in this highly irregular bizarre pseudo-ritual teach me a thing or two about Christian service, and what it means to serve your brother or sister? Yes…it was a spiritual eye-opener that I have never forgotten. Our foot-washing service on retreat brought back rather vivid memories of that much-earlier Holy Thursday experience in my life.

It also got me to reflect on the fact that maybe-just maybe-we don’t wash feet quite enough, and we should wash one another’s feet a little more often. I don’t mean that it should become a regular part of the Sunday liturgy, I mean that perhaps those prelates of the Church who are experts at liturgy could come up with a Rite for the Washing of Feet outside of Holy Thursday (if they haven’t already and I don’t know about it). Why might we consider this? The words and actions of Jesus in John 13:5-16 provide the impetus, especially verses 12-14:

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

To wash the feet of your brother or sister is one of the most powerful symbols of service that Jesus gave us. It might do us well to be reminded of that call to serve every once in awhile by “getting our hands dirty” in the service of our fellow parishioners in the way that Jesus did for the Twelve.

On Saturday night before our foot washing service on retreat, I called Nicole to check up on her. “We are having a foot washing tomorrow,” I said. In my wife’s usual directness, she responded “that is an awfully good thing for a deacon to do.”