Holy Thursday 2019
The sisters carried out the foot washing in community. I hope that they didn’t come as close to disaster as I did on one occasion.
It happened at the Diocesan Youth Centre at Castlerigg Manor. I was principal celebrant, and we were reading the Gospel in dialogue form. As I progressed along the line of “disciples” I noticed that “Peter” had the dirtiest foot I had ever seen in my life. If he had spent a lifetime tramping the dusty roads of Palestine, his foot could not have collected more grime.
Totally oblivious, he entered the dialogue with relish. “Not only my feet but my hands and my head as well” he exclaimed enthusiastically. Er.......! All might have been well had it not been for the Becher’s Brook which constituted my response, and which I could see looming: “No one who has taken a bath needs washing—he is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.”
It was more than flesh and blood could cope with, and I found myself infected with one of those fits of the giggles, which grow worse the more you need to suppress them. I took a run at the words, and pulled up short. I tried again, and eventually poured them out in the sort of falsetto scream with which Brian Johnston attempted to describe Ian Botham’s mishap in dislodging the bails with his trouser leg in an Ashes Test. Meanwhile the object of this unseemly mirth remained blissfully unaware.
Yet, believe it or not, there was something appropriate about his condition. As the Church, we are the people of mucky feet. Pope Francis has said as much, insisting that pastors must live with the smell of the sheep, and that all Christians must get our hands dirty.
We so often seek to present ourselves at the banquet of the Lord, instituted this night as Jesus made Himself the true Paschal Lamb, giving His Body and Blood as food and drink, in preparation for the shedding of that blood on the Cross—we seek to present ourselves in pristine condition, worthy to take part in so solemn and so awesome a celebration.
What we are attempting is impossible. We cannot be worthy to receive the living God within ourselves: to believe that we might be so would be blasphemy. That is why we say, not simply as a ritual, but with absolute truth, immediately before receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord: “Lord I am not worthy.”
And it doesn’t matter. He whom we receive makes up for our unworthiness. He transforms us into worthy dwelling places for Him. Nor does He inquire into the cleanliness of our feet—or, if He does, it is to ask whether they are mucky enough. Have we been walking among the sheep? Have our feet become grimy in our service of, and involvement with, others? Or have we floated serenely above the mess and squalor of our world, despising it, disdaining it, failing to recognise the face of Christ among it?
Of course, the nature of our involvement will vary in accordance with our particular vocation. For contemplative religious, that involvement will come mainly through prayer, but it will entail a struggle with God and a compassion with the world which will bring its own share of grime and sweat. For others, there may be a more direct involvement. For all of us, there will be a constant need for the Lord to wash us ever anew, because we are, and must be, the people of mucky feet.