I know it’s the Easter season, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Holy Thursday.
On Holy Thursday morning I heard one of my favorite motivational speakers talk about the instructions Jesus gave when he sent the 72 disciples out ahead of him to spread the good news. He sent them with no money, no bag, not even sandles on their feet. He told them to share the message with those who would receive it, and for those who would not, declare, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you.” Wake up those who want to be healed, and don’t waste time or energy with those who want to stay asleep. Move on.
That image of shaking the dust that clings to my feet in testimony against the one who rejects me is what stuck with me when I went to mass later that night and listened to the story of how Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles.
Apparently foot washing was so demeaning a task that even slaveholders could not demand that their slaves do it. Imagine that. Yet Jesus commanded that the Apostles, and us by extension, do that for each other. Maybe not literally, but figuratively.
What does foot washing mean for me, spiritually? Well, when I think of my mission as a disciple, it’s easy to think of all the potential “dust” I could shake off in testimony against the people who reject me, all the resentments, all the self-righteous indignation which I could justify. It’s like a middle eastern middle finger. Pre-resurrection, that behavior was acceptable, even by Jesus’ standards. “Shake off the dust in testimony,” He said.
Post-resurrection, however, that kind of judgement has no place. Instead, we need to have our feet washed. We’ve been affected by the disease of sin wherever we walk, and not one of us can avoid it, even if we’re on our best perfectionist behavior. The older son in the famous parable was just as in need of his father’s care as the younger prodigal.
It’s not enough for us to wash our own feet, if this story is to have any significance. We need to have someone else do it, and we need to do it for someone else. At my church, we reenact this by inviting anyone to come forward to have their feet washed. The only requirement is that you wash the person who comes after you. It is awkward and emotionally moving. It is humbling no matter which position I’m in. Humility is at the heart of post-resurrection foot washing.
This ceremony is not a Catholic Sacrament, just an annual ritual. But it reminds me of a Sacrament – reconciliation.
A lot of non-Catholic Christians do not see the significance of reconciliation as a Holy Sacrament – a literal sign of Christ’s real presence. Why should someone need an intermediary to experience God’s forgiveness?
The simple answer is, they don’t. Any one of us can experience God’s forgiveness at any given moment, any time we turn to Him with true humility and repentance. I personally believe that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, because He died “once, and for all,” I am forgiven before I even commit the sin.
Reconciliation (the Sacrament), is not about being at peace with God. Certainly being at peace with God is and important part of the process, but the real challenge as living, breathing, failing human beings is that we need peace within ourselves, and with each other, and I don’t believe that is possible without divine help. That is what the Sacrament is all about – examining myself, admitting and accepting my shortcomings, and asking God for help so that I can stop hurting myself and other people. Willpower alone won’t do the trick. I need God’s help, working through the human hands, the human words, and the unconditionally loving human heart of the priest in whom I trust.
I need a person to wash my feet.
Sometimes it’s not the priest I go to. Let’s face it, Fr. So and So is a busy man running his parish, visiting the sick, offering funerals, making business decisions, writing homilies, mediating church staff conflicts. I need Reconciliation during business hours about as much as I need a dozen donuts for breakfast. He’s not always available.
But I am blessed to have friends, fellow disciples learning to love who will listen and affirm and call me on my shit when I’m lying to myself. It may not be a Sacrament, but it is most definitely sacramental. Thank God for them. They wash my feet, just as I was theirs, so that the bitterness, resentment, and fear that clings to my feet after a long day of living life out in this crazy, sinful, beautiful, GOOD world can be washed off before the gritty sand begins to rub them raw and limping from pain.
Reconciliation, like foot washing, is about letting another person share our cross, if only for a few moments. It is the great sacrament of compassion and hope that yes, peace really is possible.
It is the affirmation that I can’t do anything on my own apart from the Creator and the rest of creation, and the helpmates He’s given me.