Religious Practice

Washing of Feet

From the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth
www.interfaithjourneys.net

Easter weekend and, in the interfaith world, the two great religions of Judaism and Christianity have been celebrating their foundational festivals. Both festivals tell stories of liberation and remember the values and beliefs on which their religion is founded. For Judaism the celebrations take place at home and are focussed on the ritual meal eaten on the first of the eight days of Pesach. The story is about how God intervened in their history to free them from slavery and set them on the way to becoming a people. The refrain throughout the story is “on this night…..” because the memory of this saving act is an eternally present reality.

The Christian celebration of Easter takes place in community – in Churches – and over three days enacts the last days in the life of Jesus, from his last supper with his disciples, to his death as  a common criminal and his resurrection on the third day. It too is a festival of remembrance which makes ever present the possibility of liberation from the slavery of selfishness to a life of love and service.

Because Christianity grew out of Judaism it recalls the liberation of the People of Israel and celebrates God’s presence both in creation and in history.  It goes just that little bit further in that it also celebrates God’s presence in our very humanity and in our very human struggle to live a good and wholesome life. Like Pesach it is a festival of movement and journey from despair to hope, death to life, selfishness to love.  For Christians the story of Jesus’ passage through death to resurrection contains the truth of the continuing power and presence of Jesus and the possibility of new life that’s always a possibility.

Easter isn’t a story about the past but an insight into a truth about the present. Who can doubt that we live in a world that’s in need of redemption?  Surely it’s obvious from the mess we’re making of the environment, from the violence that so characterises our race, from the growth of isolationist politics, from our growing xenophobia etc. etc. The bombings in Sri Lanka, coming at this particular time, bear witness to that fact. But the Easter story tells us that death and destruction don’t have the last word, that things can change, that peace is possible, that new life can come out of old if we pray for it, are open to it, welcome it and work for it. Northern Ireland is an example of that and there are examples in other parts of the world and in our own individual lives if we look for them. This can give us hope.

One of the most moving moments during the Christian celebrations of the last days of Jesus is the washing of the feet. On Holy Thursday the priest presiding at the service washes the feet of 12 members of the congregation to re-enact the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus as they took their last supper together. It was an unusual gesture. Feet were washed on entering a house but never during a meal nor carried out by the master of the household. Peter protested and was told by Jesus that he could have no part with him unless he had his feet washed. It was for Jesus a sign of friendship. Then Jesus said ‘If I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example,  that you should do as I have done to you”.  In this action Jesus changes the order of things – the master has become the servant. There’s a way through the desire to dominate or the fear of being dominated, a way through competition for resources that leaves some overly wealthy and others impoverished, a way through the xenophobia that divides the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’. And that way is service.

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