By Barb Arland-Fye
For years, my husband Steve declined to participate in the foot-washing ritual during Holy Thursday Mass because of embarrassment about his feet.
Treatment for a constantly infected toe nail gave him an excuse, he thought, because he didn’t want to repulse anyone who might have to wash his feet!
Each year, I tried to convince him that the ceremony isn’t about cosmetics. It’s about being of service to others, of humbling himself as Jesus did in a spirit of compassion.
But each passing year has given rise to Steve’s spiritual growth and more confidence in participating in the church community. When he is home he attends daily Mass as often as possible and serves as an usher and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Saturday night Mass. The parish can count on him to bake something for just about any event, and he is a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Finally, three years ago, Steve decided to go through with the foot-washing ritual.
Our two sons accompanied us to Mass on that Holy Thursday; Colin, then 20, looked forward to the foot-washing ritual while Patrick, then 12, decided he would rather warm the pew.
I gave Colin last-minute tips about the steps involved in the ritual. The year before, he removed both shoes and socks. As a young man with autism he has very few inhibitions, and his joyous approach to faith is inspiring.
We decided to line up as a family, with Steve and Colin washing each other’s feet. What an incredibly moving experience! With gracefulness, Colin poured water from the pitcher over Steve’s foot and into the basin. He gently, reverently rubbed his father’s foot with the soft cotton towel, just as Steve had done for him.
Steve seemed at peace, realizing there was nothing to fear at all. The condition of his feet was of no concern to those in the congregation.
When we left the church that night, Colin was beside himself with joy. “I’m so happy I got to wash my dad’s foot,” he exclaimed. He looks forward to participating in the washing of the feet each year and is anticipating tonight’s experience as well. Steve has grown more comfortable with the ritual, but might be sitting in the cab of a locomotive engine tonight instead of in a chair inside church having someone wash his foot.
“The Little Black Book” Lenten booklet says that Pope Pius XII restored the practice of washing of the feet in 1955 as part of a general reform of the Holy Week liturgies. In the United States, women and men are invited to participate in this rite, even though the Sacramentary mentions only men when it speaks of the washing of the feet.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “notes that the intention of inviting women to participate in this ritual is to emphasize service as well as charity in the celebration of the rite.” (“The Little Black Book,” April 1, 2010)
I am grateful for that invitation, which allows me in a very visual way to understand Jesus’ instruction to serve and to be served. Now I’m hoping to convince the last holdout in my family — 15-year-old Patrick — to appreciate this simple gesture of service and to have the courage to leave the pew and wash another’s foot, just like his dad did.