The Eyes Have It

The Meaning of a Holy Thursday Ritual

Do they ever bother to look up?

These priests who argue endlessly against washing the feet of women during the Mandatum on Holy Thursday, I wonder, do they ever look up during the ritual? Look up into the face of the one being washed?

I never had the chance, the opportunity, of washing the feet of another on this night until late in my priesthood. It was my first parish as pastor and I looked forward to it, but there were a few problems. I had only begun the assignment on Ash Wednesday and so knew very little about the people and customs of the parish, other than that it was an aging and diminishing congregation. I asked about the liturgies of the Triduum and mostly was met with blank stares. I gathered there was an Easter Vigil celebrated with the lights on and finished within forty-five minutes. As far as Holy Thursday went, “washing feet” wasn’t done every year, but when it was, “Father just asked twelve men from the Holy Name Society to do it.”   

With only a month of experience under my belt, I then invited twelve people to participate, individuals who had been obvious examples of service to the parish: the volunteer religious education coordinator; the president of the women’s guild; the man who ran a large parish fundraiser; the two who cleaned the church every week; etc. At the rehearsal, I started by saying that we weren’t pretending to be Jesus and the twelve Apostles. The Mandatum was a liturgical ritual connected to the Eucharist, a moment to consider our Christian call to be of loving service to one another. I pointed out that each one of them modeled that service in the way they lived. This was a gesture of prayer without words and a moment for the whole congregation to think about the ways in which they too serve the parish and the world.

I’m not sure how much of that got through, but the bowl we used spoke loud and clear. There were no basins and pitchers around the church large enough to accommodate both feet of an adult, so at the last minute, a friend let me borrow a set from her aunt. It was a family heirloom, a French antique, about a hundred and fifty years old. When I shared this with the twelve, they stared at it in shock. “You want us to put our feet in that? What if it breaks? Suppose it gets chipped?”

“You’re worth it,” I told them.

On Holy Thursday night, after the homily, a parishioner began to play a violin from the choir loft. A single chair was set up in the main aisle and then a person walking through the church barefoot took the seat and carefully placed her feet in the basin on the floor. I washed her feet with warm water and dried them with a towel. Then the chair was moved a little down the aisle—so more in the congregation could see the washing—and another came forward and took the seat, continuing the prayer slowly and thoughtfully.

That night, I discovered that a person’s feet tell less of a story about gender and more about wear and personality. In the washing, you see and touch the calluses and arthritic toes and blister scars, which are usually hidden away, but in those moments, they tell the world a story about the pains and sacrifices of walking though life. A human story of openness and courage, certainly, but it’s only when I looked up that the ritual spoke of God.

It was all in the eyes. There I saw the humility and trust that were so present in the Passion, present as well in the eyes of the woman who had completed three rounds of chemotherapy. I saw the gratitude and care that were once so essential to the preaching and healing and feeding of thousands, present also now in the man whose son had been drug-free for a year. There was the wonder and joy of resurrected life so alive among us, so alive also in the one with the news of a new grandchild. What I saw was neither male nor female, but present in whoever cared for another out of a sense of holy love. Out of their eyes, that night, Christ shined.

That year and every year since, I have seen it. It is a profound privilege to wash the feet of a human being on Holy Thursday. And if you look up while doing so, who you see will take your breath away.

Published in the March 25, 2016 issue: 

Fr. Nonomen (a pseudonym) is the pastor of a suburban parish. He has been a priest for more than twenty years.

Also by this author
The Invitation

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture