This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Latin Rite Catholics. Lent is an observance of 40 days prior to the Easter Triduum beginning on Holy Thursday. For most modern westerners, Lent does not seem so different from the rest of the year, although regular Mass attendees will notice liturgical changes such as violet vestments, an emphasis on mercy and penitence (“For Christ came not into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.”), and the absence of the Gloria and Alleluia’s. Even not-so-observant Catholics often choose to “give up something for Lent,” even if they do not choose to participate in the community activities of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstinence from eating meat on Fridays. This practice of giving up something, often something symbolic such as chocolate or desserts, invites us to practice a mild asceticism as we recall the significant asceticism of Jesus (“foxes have dens and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lie his head”), and prepare to remember his death for our salvation followed by his triumphant resurrection.
This year, I decided that one of my Lenten observances would be to participate with the community in Morning Prayer, from the Divine Office, each day. This begins around 5:15 AM. On Thursday, after congratulating myself for this effort, I was awakened by the church bell ringing at the parish, which normally rings at 5:30 AM. Startled to alertness, thinking I had overslept, I checked the time and it was 4:22 AM. It seems that during Lent here, the parishioners pray the Stations of the Cross before 6:30 Mass.
On Holy Thursday, all Masses while recalling the Jewish Passover feast, include a ceremony of Washing of Feet. This recalls the events related in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. Prior to seating for the meal,
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
The significance of this is not at all obvious in our American culture. For meals, we sit in chairs, at tables with our feet, usually in shoes, underneath the table and far from the food and from our neighbors. It is unusual for our feet to be so dirty that they would require washing before entering the dining area. For the ceremony of footwashing at Mass, there are usually representatives, rinsing of one foot only, and certainly most people make certain that their feet are clean and healthy before they are approached by Father! Even so, many people find participating in this to be difficult. We are not used to anyone bathing us, even our feet.
In the culture of Jesus, people sat on cushions near the floor to eat, and their feet were much closer to the food and to each other. People wore sandals as they walked the dusty roads. Prior to living in Cameroon, I had no idea what this really meant. Here, most of the roads are unpaved and during the dry season there are several centimeters of dust on the road. Given that there are goats and chickens roaming freely, I do not need to describe what might be in this dust. Returning from any kind of walk wearing anything but heavy boots (too hot) means that one’s feet are caked in reddish brown dirt. Even after careful cleansing with a brush it is not uncommon for us to find that we have missed streaks or a whole area, much less the difficulty of cleaning toes and toenails. It is easy to imagine that wealthy people in Jesus’ culture might have had a servant to clean the feet of the owner and his guests. Remember that water must be brought to the site of use – no shower or running water, warmed if desired (requires carrying firewood), and then poured manually if rinsing is desired. The scripture does not describe the degree to which Jesus cleaned the feet of his guests. We do not know if each person had fresh water or if there was soap. We do not know how Jesus cleaned himself after this task. It is now clear to me, however, just from trying to keep my own feet suitable for being in my quarters, that cleaning the feet of 12 grown men who have been out in the dust in sandals, would have been a real task. We are taught this humility by Jesus.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.