I fell in love with the foot-washing ritual when I first saw it as an undergraduate (many years ago now). I then resisted it, and actually rejected it for quite a long time. In recent years, I have fallen back in love with it, have found myself re-enamored with its tender arc.
That’s a rather volatile history with a liturgical rite, but not terribly unusual for that particular rite. I’ve never met a liturgically-minded Christian who stays neutral about washing feet on Maundy Thursday. Some belong to the Necessity Camp (“I can’t imagine Holy Week without it”) while others roll their eyes at the mere thought of it (“oh please, no more manicure parades”).
My resistance to this rite over the years stemmed not so much from the awkward logistics of taking off shoes and socks, and the sudden exposure to public intimacy such a moment carries—religion, after all, shouldn’t always feel comfortable and cozy. My hesitation about the rite was instead rooted in how religious symbols function.
This topic is of course hotly debated among religion scholars, and there is certainly more than one way to conceive of how a religious symbol “works.” This holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar invites precisely this kind of reflection, a week brimming with a whole panoply of rich and interlocking symbols.
On Maundy Thursday, for example, we remember the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends. The liturgy on this day qualifies as among the most complex of the entire Christian calendar: we remember not only the institution of the “Lord’s Supper,” or Holy Eucharist, we also remember the provocative and tender act Jesus offered in washing the feet of his friends—something a teacher or “master” should never do for disciples. We remember still more: the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the poignant prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the arrest of Jesus in that garden by soldiers; the altar is stripped at the liturgy’s conclusion as a sign of desolation.
Sorting through that now-classic narrative and embodying its key moments in liturgical gestures illustrates especially well an approach to religious symbols that I find helpful. The most effective symbols draw from the common, ordinary stuff of life as a way to convey divine presence. In Christian theology, we might note that Jesus himself is this kind of symbol par excellence—a fully human life as the means to encounter God’s loving grace.
This approach to religious practice suggests why the Eucharist continues to be an effective symbol of the communion into which God invites us—we readily recognize what a shared meal is around a common table; no further explanation is needed about what a “meal” is or a “shared table.” And that right there is why I resisted the foot washing ritual for so many years: we don’t actually wash each other’s feet in our modern Western world.
The dusty roads of first-century Mediterranean societies populated by people with sandaled feet made foot-washing both an ordinary, quotidian practice and also one that made the social dynamics of cultural power more visible (whether because of rank or gender or both). We see a trace of those dynamics in the shock expressed by his disciples when Jesus started to wash their feet (Peter exclaims, “you will never wash my feet!”).
The astonishment Jesus provoked had mostly to do with the inversion of cultural power in his actions, which his disciples recognized immediately. No further explanation was needed about the kind of love Jesus wanted them to model; all he had to do was wash their feet.
For all these reasons, I consider the liturgical rite of foot washing a “broken symbol.” It rarely conveys what it was originally meant to inspire as the cultural chain of meaning-making has been cut over time (not least because of the invention of fully enclosed shoes!).
In recent years, however, I have wondered in some fresh ways whether the fumbling awkwardness of the rite and even its broken character as a religious symbol might be exactly what our fragmented world needs. Modern Western society may keep its feet covered but it still lives with the wounds of powerful social hierarchies. Race, gender, sexuality, class—all these and more fragment our world and sustain painful alienations and isolations.
Maybe what we need in our religious spaces is more awkwardness, not less. Maybe our liturgical rites and religious symbols ought to reflect more directly our fumbling attempts to figure out how to be human with each other and live more peaceably and sustainably on Earth. Maybe blundering our way through a cumbersome rite, the meaning of which seems fraught and obscure, can highlight the frayed seams of our social institutions in need of healing.
When a religious symbol just doesn’t seem to “work,” it might help us see and name how severely the world around us no longer works the way it should—if it ever really did.
We could start rather modestly: if we can practice at least a moment of bodily tenderness with each other (shyly, awkwardly, no manicures needed), even just briefly and simply through a religious symbol, we might stand a better chance of doing so in the public square.
Flawless religious practice isn’t possible or even desirable. Flawed religion, replete with broken symbols, can invite us into a space where healing can happen. And I think that’s one of the reasons why religion was invented in the first place.