What's Tony Thinking

The Foot Washing I Remember


Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, so named for Jesus saying to his disciples at their last supper together, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” The latin for “commandment” is maundatum,¬†hence “maundy.”

But the immediate, if penultimate, defining act of the “as I have loved you,” is often left out of Maundy Thursday services.

At that last supper Jesus put a towel around his waist, took a bowl filled with water and began to wash the feet of his disciples. There is no way to wash another person’s feet without the experience being a humbling one. Which was the point. The Lord of all creation, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us “full of grace and truth,” knelt as a servant. He took the parts of us that are most likely to be sweaty, smelly and dirty — certainly a lot more so in first century Palestine — in his hands and washed them.

So there’s that, the humbling part. But the other side of the coin, having your feet washed is possibly even more discomforting.

At least it was for disciple numero uno, Peter. When Jesus got to him, Peter objected. Strenuously. “You shall never wash my feet,” protested Peter. There’s a vulnerability to having someone wash your feet that is almost too much to bear. It is as if Peter were saying, “I am fine being on the giving end of this equation, but the receiving end, not so much.” It may, as the saying goes, “be better to give than to receive.” What is not noted is that is also, at least for most of us, easier.

Like most Protestants in the Reformed tradition, foot washing wasn’t something I had much experience of in my church background. Some other traditions did faithfully carry it on. Mennonites did it, so too did Moravians and Primitive Baptists. But Congregationalists and Presbyterians? We were way too button-downed and proper, and frankly American, for that one.

The foot washing I remember most wasn’t, technically, a foot washing at all.

It happened one day when I stopped in Portland, Oregon to visit my Aunt Liz, the sister of my father. She, now eighty, was the one surviving member of my father’s immediate family. “Aunt Liz,” never married. For much of her adult life she and my grandmother shared a modest two bedroom rental apartment in a working-class neighborhood. She never owned a home. She worked for “Ma Bell,” back in the day when big, black phones hung on wall or sat on a desk.

Aunt Liz had a particular fondness for little things, which she termed “cute.” She loved the trim, pastel yellow “Princess” phone when it finally broke the clunky, black mold. Of little dogs, little figurines, little birds, little people, she said. “Isn’t that cute!,” which after a while sort of drove me crazy.

That said, she made an exception in my case, displaying a large still-life painting I had done in college on their wall. She never said it was “cute,” (it wasn’t), but there it was, a visible reminder that to my Aunt Liz and my grandmother I was the apple of their eye.

By the time I visited that day, Liz was long since retired. And my grandmother was long gone. My Dad, her brother, as well. She was pretty much alone as her friends too were confined or deceased.

After a while, she asked if I would do something for her. “Sure,” I said. “I can’t,” she confessed, “reach my feet. Would you cut my toenails for me?” I was, I confess, startled. The only things I had ever done for her was handy-man, at a distance, stuff — wash her car, get up on a ladder to clean a gutter or change a lightbulb. Maybe assemble a bookshelf.

This was way different. Up close and personal. Intimate. Moreover, it had simply never occurred to me that it might be a common problem for older people to take care of their feet. But, of course, as people age and lose strength and flexibility, and balance becomes an issue, their feet and toes were increasingly on their own, untended, even unseen.

I knelt at her feet. They did not look great. Several of her toenails were hideously long and curling. The skin of her feet was rough and looked as if it were painful in places. As I set to my task, she looked off into the distance, perhaps as uncomfortable as I was. I had a small towel, which I had moistened. I wiped her feet and set to work. I cut too deep on one toenail. Drops of blood appeared. I wiped the spot and cursed my ineptness. She did not seem to notice or feel any discomfort.

When I was done she was ridiculously grateful. I said, “it’s nothing.” But that wasn’t true. It was something. It was a moment of uncommon intimacy and vulnerability. And it remains the foot washing that I most remember.

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