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Thursday 6 April 2023 Maundy Thursday

07 February 2023

How to Wash Feet

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-15

By Jeremy Garratt

Parish Priest of Waterlooville and Horndean and Rural Dean in Portsmouth Diocese



Context: a parish congregation celebrating the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper during Holy Week

Aim: to encourage those attending to think about how they are called to ‘wash the feet’ of those in need

Harry, a priest colleague I worked with, was a great priest of the people. He told me that he came in from Mass one morning to find a very tatty and rather ripe old gentleman of the road on the doorstep.

Harry duly made him a cup of tea and a sandwich which the man received gratefully, but then he asked if Harry had a pair of shoes he could have. He showed the ones he was wearing, and they were very down-at-heel and the sole of one was nearly off. Harry set off to find a pair of his own for the man. When he bent down to help the gent off with his shoes, he found the man’s socks were filthy, stinking and full of holes. So, Harry went off to find him a pair of socks.

As he helped the man off with his socks, Harry noticed the state of the man’s feet. They were black and bleeding in places and none too fragrant, so Harry got a bowl, soap, water and a towel and bent down to wash the man’s feet. He then anointed and massaged them liberally with hand cream and put on his new socks and shoes. The man was delighted.

It was only then that Harry realised that tomorrow was Maundy Thursday, and he would be again washing feet at the evening Mass. But this had been real, and it is a metaphor for what priestly ministry is, or should be, all about.

Maundy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper when Jesus set his disciples an example of true leadership by kneeling at their feet and washing them, a job normally assigned to the lowliest servant. Later during the Passover meal that followed, Jesus took bread and wine, blessed and shared them with his disciples and changed their meaning. These elements were now to be consumed as his body and blood in memory of him.

Seen in the context of what was to follow when Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed on the cross, sharing the bread and wine in what was to become the Eucharist could only mean that those who ate his body and drank his blood would become one with his sacrifice on the cross and, by extension, with his triumphal resurrection. Perhaps his disciples recalled Jesus’ words after the miracle of the loaves: ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’ (John 6:54-56).

Traditionally, Maundy Thursday commemorates the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist and is marked in many Christian traditions with a ceremony in which the feet of the faithful are washed and the Lord’s Supper re-enacted to make present the dramatic events of this final day in the life of Jesus. The Church invites us all to enter into this experience with Jesus and, while not all are able to confect the Eucharist, the priestly ministry of washing the feet of others is open to everyone, perhaps not literally, as for Harry, but in many similar ways.

In these straitened times there are many people on our doorstep who are suffering the effects of poverty, struggling with an agonising choice between feeding and clothing their children and heating their homes. ‘Washing feet’ could consist of contributing goods — or a helping hand — to the local food bank; or providing assistance, such as cooking, washing up, setting up and clearing away, at one of the meal drop-ins some parishes have set up for the homeless and street dwellers.

In these times when child poverty is on the rise, perhaps a contribution to the work of the Child Poverty Action Group or Joseph Rowntree Foundation could be an option for those not so physically able to help in other ways. Could we help run a school uniform exchange, pay for a child’s after school club or school trip through anonymous channels? Or can we just be available to be a listening ear for those in distress?

These days ‘washing feet’ takes many forms and it does as much good — or more — for the one doing the washing as for the one being washed.

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