Homily for liturgy of footwashing
Texts: Psalm 33, Philippians 2:1-11, John 1:1-27
Perhaps you have read the novels of the Southern writer Walker Percy. Percy had barely begun a medical career in the early 1940s when he contracted tuberculosis. During his long recuperation he began reading the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, as well as other existentialists. He never practiced medicine again, but instead became a writer. And in 1947 he became a Catholic. Together with Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, his work has played some elusive role in weaving a Catholic worldview for me and perhaps others here. (In checking his bio I even learned this new factoid: Three months before his death in 1990 he became a Benedictine oblate and is buried in a monastic cemetery.)
Especially in his first two novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, Percy’s lead characters are all uneasy. 1950s America has told them how to prosper, succeed, make their ways through the world, and engage in its obligatory pursuit of happiness. Yet the pretense and unreality of it all nags at them. Binx the “moviegoer,” for example, sees himself on a secret search, for what he is not sure. His step-cousin and possible love interest Kate is intermittently depressed in a slightly manic way. But is her condition simply depression?
In a conversation that captures the revelatory malaise which seems to afflict both of them as well as others in these novels, Kate has relented to seeing a therapist and
she no longer feels she is coming near the brink of an abyss. “But the trouble is,” she said gloomily as we sat in the theater waiting for the lights to go out, “I am always at my best with doctors. They are charmed with me. I feel fine when I’m sick. It is only when I’m well that—” Now in the shadow of the camphor tree she stops suddenly, takes my arm in both hands. “Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real? I remember at the time of the wreck—people were so kind and helpful and solid. Everyone pretended that our lives until that moment had been every bit as real as the moment itself and that the future must be real too, when the truth was that our reality had been purchased only by Lyell’s death. In another hour or so we … all faded out again and [went] our dim ways.” (The Moviegoer, p 81)
Okay, so work with me. The analogy here will not be perfect. While I would note that a combination of subtle melancholy and boisterous joie de vivre can open one up to the full richness of human experience, my own personality type is not easily transferable. And I’m certainly not recommending clinical depression as a spiritual practice. But what I do wish to suggest is this: In something of the same way that Walker Percy’s characters get real when pretense gets stripped and reality is unvarnished, for Christians who wash one another’s feet, footwashing is where it gets real.
What is the “it” here that gets real? Nothing less than everything. The truth of our humanity. The truth of our relationships. The truth that we would not be the persons we are, or exist at all, without bonds between us. The truth — in other words — of our never being able to do without receiving, nor do without giving, in constant exchanges of gifts. The truth that our very capacity to receive is itself a gift of grace. The truth that all is based on God’s gift. The truth of the One who
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a [servant], being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Phi 2:6-8)
Yes, this is where it gets real.
* * *
So let me tell you about some feet I have known.
I remember the feet of Simón, at the small Mennonite church we attended in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, nearly 30 years ago. When I needed a person of faith to pray for me, Simón was the one I sought out. He was probably the poorest man in the congregation. He scratched out a living and supported his family — or tried — by selling items like toothpaste and toilet paper on the street. Yet the joy and dignity he found in offering his tithe to the church was infectious. To wash his dried and calloused feet was to know something about the world that is unknowable in the offices of economists,on the trading floors of financiers, and indeed in the classrooms of theology professors.
I remember the feet of Martin, a fellow doctoral student a couple of years ahead of me at Notre Dame. He was in the liturgy program and was doing his dissertation on practices of footwashing in early Christianity. I invited him to join us for a Maundy Thursday service at Kern Road Mennonite Church so that he could experience a Mennonite footwashing service, and we ended up washing one another’s feet. I did not know at the time that he was “out” gay Catholic, and I trust that if I had, it would not have made any difference — any difference in my invitation that is. In another way, our feet, and the hands that washed them, made a great difference. This was about the time in the early 1990s when I was just beginning to think through the ethics of same-sex relationships, a struggle that went unresolved for two decades. As I wrote to him at one point in an email a few years later, “Though I have sometimes agonized over the implications of the debate over homosexuality in the church, one unmovable marker for me is the memory that you and I have washed one another’s feet.”
I remember my wife’s feet, of course. Our wedding night, and a new kind of intimacy soon to come, but first I wash her feet. Just as important have been the three, four, seven times over the years (I haven’t counted) when we have returned to wash one another’s feet. Sometimes, this has come in the midst of conflicts. Thus we have promised one another to remain vulnerable, not to give up, to remember always the bedrock covenant that allows us to differ in honesty and trust. Sometimes, footwashing has come on the far side of conflicts, as our feet and gentle hands have thus sealed our forgiveness and reconciliation.
I remember Eugene’s feet at the Bridgefolk footwashing service in 2007. Or rather, I remember my feet as he not only washed them, but kissed them. Eugene was part of a Mennonite-Catholic group in northeast Ohio that had formed entirely apart from Bridgefolk, but joined us when we met in Elkhart, Indiana. Like Peter before Jesus in the Gospel of John, I wanted to protest. Eugene seemed a very traditional Catholic in many ways, and I still have no idea whether there is a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox precedent that inspired this intimate liturgical addition. What I do know is that I still have much to learn, and liturgical minutia is the least of it. Grace upon grace, the service I sometimes most need to give is gracious receiving, as a guest.
Finally, but no less importantly, are all the feet I have washed, and all the hands that have washed my feet, in unremarkable services of footwashing over the years. If I do not remember them all so vividly, still, they have been no less formative. In their basins, and water, and towels I and many of you have washed the feet of people we have known well, but also the feet of mere acquaintances, or even of people we have just met. Yet through ordinary, not-so-memorable footwashings we have touched the body of Christ — become the body of Christ — without quite knowing what it would mean next. We haven’t quite known what we were committing ourselves to, every time. How will we live out the reality of footwashing the next time a conflict, or a need, or an anguish surfaces in our relationships, and with what dirt or smell or sores? We do not know. But by exposing our feet, and washing those of others, it has gotten real. We have gotten real.
* * *
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,” said Jesus, “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. (Jn 13:14-15)
The example Jesus gave us is not just ritual footwashing. The example is not just an enacted parable of service. The example is Incarnation. The example is “lowering” ourselves as servants, not merely in humility — and not in humiliation at all — but lowering ourselves nonetheless by going deeper and deeper and freer of pretense, into the reality of the world.
This, my friends, is gospel, even when uncomfortable, even when painful.
That a lord or master and teacher would truly go lower — not just “condescend” paternalistically — was almost unthinkable in the ancient world. We have read the opening verses of John mainly to remind us of the Incarnation — none less than God the pattern and meaning and deepest reality of the cosmos made flesh in Jesus Christ. But notice also a little ground-level detail connecting John 1 with the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13: “‘Among you stands one whom you do not know,’” says John the Baptist, of Jesus, “‘the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’” (Jn 1:26-27). Even when salvation history is at the cusp of Jesus’ ministry, even John the Baptist could not imagine himself worthy to attend to the feet of his coming master. How much less might have he imagined that same Lord and Teacher stooping to wash his feet?
And even in the Psalms that the Christian community has prayed from its earliest days, one is hard-pressed to find God lowering Godself to our feet. Feet are where God’s enemies belong, as in Psalm 2, or where our enemies belong, as in Psalm 47. The closest we generally come to a self-lowering God is the portrayal of a merciful God looking down from a heavenly throne in our Psalm today, Psalm 33. Such a God is certainly worthy of a quiet trust we dare not put in great armies or war horses. But in Psalm 33, God liberates but still does so by condescending from above. It is gospel, then, that none less than God goes lower, deeper, into human reality, giving us an example to do likewise.
And so I close with what for me is the most astounding account of feet I have known.
In the seventh “book” or chapter of his Confessions, St. Augustine recounted the pride that had kept him from embracing “the mediator between God and [humanity], the man Christ Jesus, who is over all things, God blessed forever.” At that point in his search, Platonic philosophy had helped him resolve his intellectual questions and accept Christian teaching but only rationally. Fancying himself a Platonic philosopher, he had shared in the pride with which they imagined themselves on a noble quest to rise through their own intellectual powers to the heights of wisdom. But doing so had actually weakening them and him.
I did not hold fast to Jesus my God, a humble man clinging to him who was humble, nor did I know in what thing his lowliness would be my teacher. Your Word, eternal truth, surpassingly above the highest parts of your universe, raised up there to himself those who had been brought low. Amid the lower parts he has built for himself out of our clay a lowly dwelling, … [to] bring them to himself. He heals their swellings, and nourishes their love, so that they may not go on further in self-confidence, but rather become weak. For at their feet they see the Godhead, weak because of its participation in our “coats of skin,” and in their weariness they may cast themselves upon it, while it arises and lifts them up. (Confessions 7.18.28, Ryan translation)
“At their feet they see the Godhead.” At our feet we see the Godhead. Ancient peoples did not expect such a God, especially high-minded Greeks or imperial Romans. Nor, naturally, would we. But gospel transforms. Gospel up-ends. Incarnation goes deeper and deeper. Inviting us to wash one another’s feet, Jesus tells us to get real, and shows us how.