You Shall Never Wash My Feet, Unless You Look at Me

I was looking at old Busted Halo columns trying to get ideas for questions that have never been asked for our Googling God features. Sometimes we use solicited questions and sometimes we decide to “cover” a particular topic. So I was looking for things we’ve covered before about Holy Week.

And I came upon a column written by my dear friend, Elizabeth Bonwich, who passed away last year after a long fight with cancer. Her search for spirituality took her to several places: Alaska to the see majesty of the Aurora Borealis, to retreat houses and theatre troupes and the joy of swings in a local park. All of these were great fodder for spiritual reflection from a woman who was simply beautiful and who loved God deeply, even though she would admit to many that she struggled at times to believe in her suffering moments—the “dry moments in prayer” she’d tell me.

But this column was one of her best, I think. And it’s appropriate to share this Holy Thursday.

One needs to remove one’s shoes in a Buddhist temple. Because of my physical disability, walking without shoes was problematic. So after helping me up the stairs, the monk and I developed a routine where he would take my shoes from me when I sat down and bring them back for me to put on at the end of meditation.

One night he put them down, knelt down, put my feet into them and tied my shoelaces. In words it doesn’t look like much, but in that moment, watching a man who was for that time my teacher kneeling on the floor over my feet, I suddenly had a clue about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Like the disciples, I protested and like Jesus, he insisted.

I felt something between humbled and embarrassed. I wanted it to be over quickly and I wonder if the disciples felt that way too. We didn’t talk much as verbal communication between us proved to be confusing. But by his actions I learned volumes about kindness, compassion, and Christ.

Who woulda thunk it? Finding Christ in a Buddhist temple! That guy gets around huh?

This past week a group of campus ministers gathered for our vicariate meeting in Buffalo, which entails a morning “retreat-like prayer” and an afternoon workshop. Both were wonderful experiences. We prayed the experience of Holy Week–taking each day: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter and reflecting on them as a whole. When we got to Holy Thursday the “ritual action” was to wash each other’s feet.

The ritual is very special to me, one, because I met my wife on Holy Thursday and we always remember that each year by washing each other’s feet either privately or if possible, at our Holy Thursday mass. The first time she washed my feet was a year into our relationship and I broke down. My Marion, then my fianceé looked into my eyes as she washed and dried my feet and at that moment I knew she was going to be my wife. I felt so loved and cared for. I noticed that most of the time nobody ever makes eye contact when they wash another’s feet. In fact they are so uncomfortable with the experience that like Elizabeth, they hope it’s over quickly.

But would Jesus have done that? I doubt it. I picture Jesus looking squarely into the eyes of each disciple. And caring about the action he was doing. He loved them all until the end and although he knew that these feet would run away just hours later, he got down and washed the filth and grime away from those feet anyway.

I imagine Peter turning his eyes away from Jesus, unable to look at him squarely as he uttered those now famous words: “Are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!”

And Jesus’ love goes even beyond Peter’s arrogance. “If I do not wash your feet, then you will have no inheritance with me.”

At our meeting, I had my feet washed by our diocesan director of education, who’s division campus ministry falls under. Carol is a nice woman. We don’t get to talk much but I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with her. She finished washing my feet and then she looked to me and said, “Mike, thanks for all you do.” She washes my feet—but then she thanks me?

In turn I was invited to wash Nathan’s feet. He’s the campus minister at Fredonia State, a bit off the beaten path from Buffalo and these meetings are often the only time we get to see one another. I looked up at him several times. Smiled once or twice at him as I dried his foot and then we silently moved on. Afterwards, we had time to share some thoughts about the experience with each other and Nathan spoke of our experience.

“When Mike washed my feet he looked at me. Several times. I really felt cared for and I was moved to do the same for the person whose feet I washed.”

And there in a simple gesture, we find each other’s humanity. Something that Jesus knew all too well. It’s not just the action that we do that matters, it’s making our actions personal. It’s connecting with another in the action itself. What if we didn’t just give food to the hungry but we instead sat down and ate with them? What if we looked into the eyes of the panhandler as we pressed a quarter into their hands? What if we had to look at each citizen in the eye before we dropped bombs on them? What if we treated others just a bit more humanely when we serve them instead of rushing to the next person or thing that we choose to spend time with?

Can we dare to look their way? Because it is in their face that we meet Jesus…and like Elizabeth we are humbled by their humanity and love for us.

As we enter into Holy Thursday’s grandeur, may we be humble enough to be washed, to let ourselves be washed and to look into the eyes of those we encounter in this moment.

And let that moment change us forever and bring us Christ’s peace.

Not Only My Feet, Lord…

All of me…
Why not take all of me?

Are we willing to offer all of ourselves to anyone really? I know there are parts of me that I don’t want anyone to know about. There are parts of me that I’m not exactly proud of, some things I’ve done and I’d be embarrassed about it if the NY Times found out about them.

But God knows about those things already.

Yikes! I don’t want God to know those things! I don’t want God to see the dirty parts of who I am!

Tonight’s gospel centers on the fact that Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, which at the time is no easy task. The disciples’ feet are open to the elements with their sandals picking up all kinds of dirt and animal waste in the open marketplace where livestock was freely traded.

And so washing feet was indeed vile. And it is no wonder that Peter doesn’t want the master to touch the filthiest part of who he is.

However, it’s these feet that Jesus needs to touch and be at ease with because these same feet will run away this night and be unable to stand at the foot of the cross. These feet will be locked in an upper room immobile until that greeting of “peace be with you” breaks open the door and their courage.

Can we wash feet? Can we be at ease with those who do dirty and vile things? Can we forgive those who we consider ugly and nasty? This week those responsible for the abuse of children in our church are in the forefront of my mind and I would have a really hard time forgiving someone who did that kind of injustice to me or to someone I know. I have all I can do to not throw a few stones at those who did these reprehensible things.

A priest who once served in my parents’ parish is now a well-known abuser. He was ordained despite a past in which he abused little boys. I remember liking serving mass with him. He was friendly and sociable and he always had time for me. In hindsight I remember now that after a couple of glasses of wine, he would indeed briefly nuzzle his head on my shoulder. My mother told me years later that he asked her if he could take me to Rome on a trip once but that she refused to let me go. My mom just remembers that her mother’s intuition told her that this was someone that she shouldn’t trust.

This was a man I trusted and the anger I felt towards priest-pedophiles reached an all time high for me when I found out his diabolical plans and nothing abusive had happened to me at all! The fact that it could’ve was more than enough to make me upset and simply mad.

Today that anger stops. I want to wash feet instead. The feet of filthy men and women who nobody will dare to touch. Because Jesus offers them the basin just as readily as he offers it to me.

Justice needs to happen for those who abused children and I hope that these people stay in prison for a long time. But I also hope that we can heal from all of this and healing can only happen by being free from our anger and by offering forgiveness. We care an awful lot about what happens to these men and women who couldn’t care for themselves or for the welfare of children.

But if God can forgive those who killed him, how can we not forgive?

Maybe it’s still too early and things are still too raw. I’m sure if I were abused I feel far more hatred and anger than I do. Maybe God has to work on us for a lot longer before we are ready to let go of our feelings of betrayal.

Perhaps this is also so because we can’t imagine God touching those filthy and dark parts of ourselves. And for those of us who haven’t abused children it’s hard for us to imagine being forgiven for lesser sins that keep us feeling guilty and hopeless, convinced that God’s gonna get us for what we’ve done.

But the truth is that we reject God with that notion. We place our own limits on God’s forgiveness and perhaps would even be upset if we found evil people exonerated by God’s mercy.

But God offers that forgiveness anyway. And as my wife, who knows most of my faults all too well, washes my feet tonight, I recall that I don’t always deserve the love she offers me either. I can be a louse sometimes. And the truth is that we have to let God be God and wash the filthy parts of the world alongside those tiny crevices that don’t often seem all that dirty as well.

Not only the child molesters, Lord…but our minds and hearts and attitudes that keep us from forgiving them as well.

Washing of the Feet

In the time of Jesus, washing feet was a filthy job. It was the lowest job that anyone could have, so low that even some servants would refuse to do it–leaving the job to those who were new on the job. The disciples in today’s gospel’s instance, wore sandals exposing their feet to the dust of the road but more than that…

The marketplace was an area where livestock roamed so animal waste was plentiful and anyone walking through the marketplace really couldn’t avoid it. And because Jesus’s disciples were about to recline together at table…feet needed to be washed as they would lie in close proximity to the table and to one another.

And Jesus washes these filthy, stinky feet.

Simon Peter will have none of it. The one who is master and Lord, the one we call teacher, the one who is the Son of God is going to wash my FEET? No way. There is a big elephant in the room and Peter is the only one who has the guts to point it out. And who can blame him? Some disciples maybe even breathed a sigh of relief that he did this.

I think I’d be a lot like Peter. Because my feet get me into lots of trouble. They take me to plenty of places that I shouldn’t go. I walk past the homeless each day on my way to work ignoring their needs most of the time. My feet won’t stay still when I need to sit by my parent’s bedside as their medical problems worsen in their old age. And when my wife needs someone to listen to her when she’s upset my feet can find plenty of things to walk to instead.

Feet are indeed troublesome for us all.

One Holy Thursday my parish invited us to wash each other’s feet after a select group had been washed by the pastor. One of the more moving moments in my life was when my wife washed my feet. Why? Well Marion, my wife, knows me better than anybody else. She knows all of my faults and insecurities. She knows that I’m grumpy in the morning and short-tempered at times. She knows I’m far from perfect and yet she loves me anyway–and sometimes I wonder why she does? And she knows that we can’t make a baby together either. We’ve been through a lot in our marriage together and will continue to go through a lot over our married life. And she also knows that I have stinky feet.

And because of all that, the fact that Marion can get down and washes my feet–and I hers says something much deeper. And when she stoops to wash them she says to me: “OK Mike, I know you are not perfect, but if I can do this…if I can get down and do something as vile as washing these feet of yours–I know we can make it through just about anything in our marriage together.” And I am called to do the same for her.

Jesus knows all about these feet too. Peter doesn’t want these feet of his washed because he knows they are dirty. What’s more is that he knows that there are a lot of filthy parts of himself. And he doesn’t want Jesus to know much less, touch any part of them. But the point of most of John’s gospel is that Jesus is in complete control and knows what is about to befall him. What is remarkable is that these feet of these so-called friends of his will run at the first sign of trouble.

No matter who we are…we all have stinky feet from time to time. Whether we wear Prada shoes or flip flops–the filth of our lives is something that we all know is present. We sin. And it is filthy.

And Jesus knows it. And yet…he gets down and washes their feet anyway. There was only one man who was worthy enough to be served that night–and he was the one who washes feet.

But like Peter, we don’t think we deserve to be washed clean. We think that God couldn’t really want to and really shouldn’t be anywhere near the most filthy parts of ourselves.

And yet, here is Jesus not only stooping down to wash our feet but he seems at ease with doing so.

God doesn’t forgive our sins against our will. No, it is up to us to let Jesus touch those intimate parts of ourselves–to face what needs cleaning and to let the water wash us clean. It reminds us of our baptism and calls us to the Eucharist.

Admitting that we have stinky feet, doesn’t keep us guilty or even make us feel like horrible people. Our stinky feet simply remind us that we need God–that we’re not perfect, that we all have Busted Halos.

This night, I pray that you, like Peter can let Jesus stoop down to touch those deep wounds that you have suffered.

“Not only my feet Lord, but my hands and my head as well.”

If I were Peter, I’d be nowhere near the Courtyard

Here’s an old Busted Halo column that I thought I’d share for Holy Thursday:

Usually when St. Peter’s denial of Jesus is recounted every Holy Week I find myself feeling somewhat superior. After all, Peter refuses to admit that he even knows Jesus—and here I am standing proud in my pew as a faithful follower of Christ. But this year I’ve begun to see that scene from the Gospel in a different light. Though Peter denies Jesus I wonder if on that tortuous night he also displayed a form of conflicted courage as well.

All the other apostles ran away in fear that night, but Peter followed Jesus all the way into the high priest’s courtyard (in Luke’s Gospel he even enlists another disciple who is known to the high priest to help get him into the courtyard). Certainly this was not an exercise for the timid. Peter even goes to warm himself by the fire where the very soldiers who arrested Jesus were also sitting—presumably one of the soldiers would remember the follower of Jesus who struck the high priest servant’s ear? (And one does, Peter’s second accuser was a kinsman of that very servant.)

Stay Close

Still, after being recognized he doesn’t run away. Perhaps he is simply trying to stay close to Jesus to find out what is to become of Him. So he lies, not merely out of fear for his own life but out of fear of being banished from the courtyard and losing sight of Jesus. Perhaps in his conflicted love he thought that if he could just keep Jesus in his sights, maybe there was something he could do to help? In Luke’s version Peter’s denial happens just out of earshot from where Jesus is standing. It is here that we read: “…and the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.” (Luke 22:60-63)

There’s a lot of Peter in all of us. And when faced with the choice of denying our Christianity or being flogged for it—we most often decline the invitation that leads us into suffering and take the easy way out.
Perhaps Peter is an example of faint-hearted, fearful discipleship in the story, but how often have I done even less in my own life?

Read the rest here.