While the washing and kissing of feet is maybe not the strangest of the rituals of the Catholic Church, it is certainly one of the more mysterious. Why wash feet?
A way for us to better understand this is through a poem in one of my favourite books, Revolting Rhymes, by one of my favourite authors, Roald Dahl. While Roald Dahl is known as a children’s author, a parental warning that I am not sure it is for children. One of the poems is about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Roald Dahl describes how Goldilocks eats the porridge and goes to bed in this way:
Most educated people choose/To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed./But Goldie didn’t give a shred.
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime,/And mud and much and slush and slime.
Worse still, upon the heel of one/Was something that a dog had done.
I say once more, what would you think/If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown.
So if that is already how dirty our shoes can get, imagine how much dirtier our feet are when we haven’t got shoes – just this skinny bit of sandal to cover the minimum. Dirty feet in the house were disgusting.
So the fact that Jesus washes the feet tells us three things. The first is that we are dirty. Our sin makes us stink. In the Old Testament, they would burn bits of the liver and kidneys as an odour pleasing to God. There is nothing pleasing about our odour of sin to God. There is nothing pleasing about our odour of sin to anyone. That is the problem with sin: it is always selfish, always evil, and always hurtful to others. Am I being too harsh? Well, its what Jesus says: we need a wash.
A second thing it tells us is that Jesus wants to and can clean us. No power on earth can undo the evils we have done in our life: except one – the blood of God. That’s what all this stuff in the first reading about blood on the doorposts is about: only the blood of God saves from and protects from evil. And if we ask him, he will.
A third and final thing it tells us is that part of a good relationship with God is allowing Jesus to be our servant. This is a very remarkable thing to see about the Almighty creator of the cosmos – but again, this is one of the distinctive things that makes Christianity better than anything else. Part of what makes our God Almighty is that he is our universal servant. This is what it means to love: to serve the other. And this is what Jesus means when he asks us to love: if we love somebody, then we constantly strive to serve them. Otherwise our love is just feely-feely fairyland.
The proof of this is in the Eucharist: which all this foot-washing stuff is really about anyway. That Jesus is humble is shown in the humility of the bread. He doesn’t come in a stunning supernatural jewel or technicolour pill – he comes in a tiny fragile bit of bread. His humility is also shown in what happens at mass: remarkably, Jesus always obeys the priest. And that Jesus is a servant is shown in the fact that like any good servant, he’s hidden, in the bread – because it’s not about him. It’s about the glory of the Father, and making sure we’re alright. That’s what he lives for.