By Alissa Newton
Today is Maundy Thursday , the beginning of the end of Lent and the beginning of the Triduum, the time when we remember and liturgically re-live the three days before the death of Christ.
I've always loved Maundy Thursday, even before I knew that some people used that name for it. Growing up in an evangelical non-liturgical tradition the Thursday before Easter was simply "The Foot-washing Service." There is something undeniably intimate and vulnerable about the washing of feet, and as a child I found this both moving and sort of thrilling. In the church of my childhood this was a segregated service, women in one room and men in the other. I don't know what happened for the men, but in the women's group we would all sit in a circle and sing hymns. Every year sometime before the foot-washing service my Mom would tell me a story about one of the first times she attended, when she was a young woman. She might have even been a teenager. After the singing of hymns began, each woman would wash the feet of the woman sitting next to her, and so on in a circle until everyone had both washed and been washed. My mother, the young woman, happened to be sitting next to one of the matriarchs of the church, an elderly lady whose movements were slow and hands shook. Mom was slightly horrified to realize that this woman would be washing her feet. I remember listening to my mother tell of how she sat and had her feet washed by someone so much older than her, wiser, and much more frail, and how that moment both humbled and exalted her. Sometimes when she told the story her eyes would brim with tears, remembering. I loved to hear it, and I loved to be a part of the whole ritual. The church I grew up in had little in the way of formal ritual, but what we had I reveled in. At the Foot-washing I felt connected to the Church, even as a child, in a way that was unique to my experiences in church at the time.
Now I still love the footwashing ritual. Set within an Anglo-Catholic mass, with choir and Eucharist, robes and incense, men and women together - the washing of another human being's feet remains one of the most intimate and powerful experiences of community that I have ever been exposed to. It is an act of service that is equally humbling for both recipient and the one who washes. Feet are so often a neglected body part - they do so much of the work of getting us around, but in our culture are seen as dirty and sort of private. It's rare to have someone else touch them. And even more so in the context of the Sacred. We Anglo-Catholics are so in love with Beauty and Mystery, two qualities rarely discovered in feet.
I hope today can be a reminder to me that in the context of Eucharist, in the Kingdom of God, the neglected and dirty can be part of what is Holy and Beloved and Beautiful. Jesus' feet were washed by the tears of a shamed woman who brought him perfume. Jesus washed his disciples feet before he gave them the first Eucharist. Humility and vulnerability are powerful and important, these stories tell us, and Christ proves to us as he embodies both in order to bring us through Maundy Thursday and tomorrow's Good Friday, to Easter.
Alissa Newton is Jr. Warden at St. Paul's and the editor of the parish blog. This entry is cross-posted to her personal blog, which can be found here.