Not the most glamorous part of the human body. But as I realised more clearly last year when I was off them, we need our feet to stand, for balance and support, to bear our weight and get ourselves from A to B. As infants we contemplate our feet and adults tickle them; in due course we crawl, stand and walk with them. As children we use them to stand on our toes, run, hop, jump and skip, kick a football, ride bikes, swim, surf and skate. As adults we also use them for labour of various sorts, to tiptoe, dance, decorate ourselves, drive, or march to war, to walk the street, the catwalk, the gangplank, the camino and, of course, to ‘walk down the aisle’.
Important as feet are, many people are embarrassed at the thought of exposing them in public. One year, when I was a university student attending the Mass of the Lord’s Supper here at St Mary’s, I was picked out of the crowd to have my feet washed by Cardinal Freeman. I remember that my immediate thought was: are my feet clean enough to shove in the face of an Archbishop? I never guessed I’d have my turn doing the foot washing here at St Mary’s…
Feet, we know, were an important symbol in ancient times. Occasionally people were permitted to glimpse the feet of the Unseen God;[i] more commonly, they responded to the divine presence by taking off their own shoes.[ii] Devotees kissed the feet of their gurus, priests had their feet washed for them, and victorious leaders even tread upon their enemies’ prone bodies.[iii] Echoing that charming custom, Jews and Christians dreamed of their enemies being made into God’s footstool.[iv] Bare feet clearly represented both sacred and secular power.
Thus washing someone’s feet could mean many things: reverence, subservience, hospitality. People arrived, often on foot, their feet tired, dusty, sandy. The welcoming thing was to wash their feet or at least offer them the wherewithal to do it for themselves. When three angels came to dinner at Abraham’s place, he first offered them water to wash their hands and feet – or perhaps it was their wings… St Paul told Timothy that widows should only be enrolled as ‘nuns’ (so to speak) if they were full of good works, such as kindness to the sick and stranger, and “washed the feet of the saints”.[v] Martha’s sister Mary washed and anointed Jesus’ feet as a sign of affection; when people complained, Jesus pointed out she was also preparing Him for His burial.[vi] In a similar incident, a woman of ill-repute used her own tears and hair on Jesus’ feet; when people complained again, Jesus noted that she alone had done Him with the courtesy of the washing His feet.[vii] His point was: visitors deserve better, especially those who’ve walked far to preach the Gospel.
St Dominic walked literally thousands of kilometres, through Spain, France, Italy and beyond, preaching the Gospel, establishing houses of friars and nuns, never staying long in any one place. Roads were often poor and he refused to ride a horse: he wanted to live as the poor lived, and to be an itinerant preacher as Christ had been. The proper text for his feast day is from Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news.”[viii] Dominicans joke that while it might have been beautiful to hear Dominic’s footsteps coming, seeing or smelling his feet might not have been so pleasant: they would have been calloused and broken, disfigured and dirty, a long way from the foot models used in TV commercials!
Well, in tonight’s Gospel Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and gave them the mandatum to do the same.[ix] Those apostles’ feet were, I suspect, tired, gnarled, pongy and sore like Dominic’s. Jesus’ gesture of washing them clearly scandalised St Peter. But the Lord was determined to tell of His love for them (smelly feet and all), of the hospitality of the kingdom of God that He promised to all Christians, and of the reverence proper to their new station as priests. But like Mary preparing Jesus for His passion, so He is preparing them for the martyrdom that will come of devoting themselves to preaching and living His Gospel, as our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere know all too well. He says to us all: what I have done, so you too must do.
It’s not the last time Jesus will say this to us. As priests of old were ordained by washing and anointing their hands and feet,[x] so both featured on the first Maundy Thursday Night. Having washed His disciples’ feet Jesus put His clothes back on and returned to the Passover meal. He took bread and wine “in His holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven, to His Almighty Father, He gave thanks and blessed” and handed them over to His friends. He was not just giving them the Passover gifts: He was handing Himself over to them. Take this: it is My Body; it is My Blood. God was once more putting Himself into the hands of sinful men. Now and for all time, His Body and Blood will be truly present under the species of bread and wine. And just as He mandated that they should imitate what He did with His feet and theirs, so now He tells His priests to imitate what He’s doing with hands: Do this in memory of me. (cf. 1Cor 11:23-26)
Last Holy Week I was fairly crippled both in my hands and feet. Thanks to God’s grace and your prayers, good healthcare and the loving support of many, they are much improved. Still, it has given me much to think about. At last year’s Chrism Mass I reflected on the role of hands in a human life, a Christian life, a priestly life; this year I’ve reflected with you a little on the place of feet.
Both will feature in the events of the days ahead. Later tonight Jesus will be bound hand and foot and taken to His fate. The authorities will literally wash their hands of Him; the soldiers will kick Him with their feet. Tomorrow He’ll be forced to walk the Via Dolorosa and then be stretched out and nailed – hand and foot – upon the cross. Though twisted and gory, people will be drawn to look upon “the One whom they have pierced” in those limbs.[xi] And when He rises on Sunday the Lord will say “See my hands and my feet”,[xii] wounded but glorious. On our behalf Mary Magdalene will try to cling to his feet, Thomas to touch the glorified wounds, and all the other disciples in vain to hold on to Him at His Ascension.[xiii]
As we begin the Sacred Triduum tonight – one continuous ceremony through to the Easter Vigil on Saturday Night – we pledge once again to use our hands and feet as they were used on that first Holy Thursday: to tell of reverence and love, of worship and praise, of service and sacrament. As Christ walked His way to the cross, He calls us again to do as He did, to give our all as He did. Hands and feet, bound and pierced, the truest signs of the Cross, offered up and handed over, for the salvation of the world.
[i] Ex 24:10; 2 Sam 22:10; Ps 18:9; Ezek 43:7; Zech 14:4.
[ii] Ex 3:5; Josh 5:15; Acts 7:33.
[iii] Ex 30:19-21; 40:31; 1 Kings 5:3; Josh 3:13; 10:24; Isa 49:23; Ps 2:12; 8:6; 47:3; Lk 17:16; Acts 10:25; 13:35; Heb 2:8.
[iv] Ps 110:1; cf. Mt 22:44; Rom 16:20; Acts 2:35; Heb 1:13; 10:13; 1 Cor 15:25-27; Rev 3:9.
[v] e.g. Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Jud 19:21; 1 Tim 5:9-10.
[vi] Jn 12:1-8; 13:1-15; cf 11:2; Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9.
[vii] Lk 7:36-50.
[viii] Isa 52:7; cf. Rom 10:15.
[ix] Jn 13:1-15.
[x] Ex 29:1-9; 30:19-21 etc.
[xi] Ps 22:16; Zech 12:10; Jn 19:37.
[xii] Lk 24:39.
[xiii] Jn 20:17, 24-29; Mt 28:9-10.