A “Foot Note” in Holy Week

What Jesus did and what he lived through in this most holy week on the Christian calendar is utterly, shockingly, and wonderfully queer in many ways. Not least among those queer moments is when he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5) – an act that many Christian communities will re-enact today, Maundy Thursday.

But I worry that many of those re-enactments will fail to capture the subversive character of that moment in John’s gospel – the only one of the four gospels to include that story. Not for any fault of the communities engaged in the ritual, but for a much more pervasive problem – sentimentality.

Just to be clear, I’m not squeamish about feet and I do appreciate the tenderness and intimacy of washing someone’s feet or having my own feet washed. But if the point of this story is intimacy, I fail to understand why Peter so strenuously objected to what Jesus was doing (John 13:6-8). There’s more than just a hint of scandal in this story, which is easy to miss today.

For the vast majority of modern western people, the only time we ever wash feet is just once a year, in church, on Maundy Thursday. In first century Palestine, by contrast, people did have their feet washed quite regularly, by servants or slaves. We don’t – and that makes the scandalous subversion of John’s story difficult to grasp.

The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is different. While contemporary western society is slowly losing the significance of eating food together (one in five meals in the U.S. is eaten alone in a car), we haven’t lost entirely the power of sharing meals. Jesus eating a final meal with his disciples thus has at least some traction in western cultural life today. Washing feet? Not so much.

Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and ethicist, once remarked that the greatest danger facing Christianity today is not heresy but sentimentality. Sentimentalizing the power reversal that Jesus performed by taking on the role of a slave is a good example of Hauerwas’ caution.

So let’s find some creative ways to perform the kind of social revolution and queerly good news that the writer of John’s gospel seemed to have in mind. Many Christians live that queerly Christian life already (by subverting social hierarchies, or eradicating poverty, or resisting an imperial military-industrial complex, or dismantling racism, to name just a few ways) but they rarely if ever do so by washing feet.

I dream of finding some kind of ritual that’s faithful to the queerness of Jesus and which also has some traction in today’s social, ethical, and political quandaries. Making that dream a reality will likely mean ritualizing Christian queerness in multiple ways and not just one.

A good place to begin might be talking about the effects of social power in a multicultural, globlalized world. If more Christian faith communities did that, we’d help to ensure that the scandalous Jesus isn’t just a footnote in holy week.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

5 thoughts on “A “Foot Note” in Holy Week”

  1. A couple years ago, instead of doing feet-washing, Father Rusty decided to shine the shoes of select members of the congregation. That twist allowed the shock of the act to come to light in ways that feet-washing, which had become old hat, couldn’t. It was a queer moment, that’s for sure.

  2. A helpful commentary on the Maundy. Perhaps it might be more appropriate today to have CEOs bussing tables, or cleaning hotel rooms, or mowing the lawns of the poor? You’re absolutely right that we’ve lost the utter inversion of the social order that the Gospel story so queerly demonstrates.

  3. I agree with you, Jay, that many of our holy week rituals risk sentimentalizing what was a truly radical action. For me, these same rituals err on the side of re-enactment as well, re-doing the story without re-contextualizing it to create a meaning-full performance in our current contexts. However, I would argue that the performance of intimacy involved in washing feet is actually quite counter-cultural for most people in the United States, especially in our increasingly mechanized culture. The action of touching and bathing another person, especially one who is not a relative performs an intimacy that is uncommon in our cultural lives, I think. To me, it evokes bonds of kinship, since the persons we most often bathe are children or elderly parents or other relatives. In a culture where so much emphasis is placed on the nuclear family, a ritual that performs bonds of kinship in such a different way is in itself queer. For me the question becomes how then to use the text of prayers, introductions to the ritual, music, etc. to emphasize the queerness of this intimacy and the kinship bonds it simulates, instead of seeing it as a re-enactment.

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