Another Triduum is about to start. In two hours we will begin the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Enjoying some quiet time I am pondering the mysteries which we are about to celebrate. Not surprisingly, my mind wondered and I tookme back to that one Holy Thursday I will never forget. It happened some 25 years ago. I was a young liturgy student at the University of Notre Dame. That year I had decided to celebrate the Sacred Triduum at the motherhouse of a religious community. Having arrived early I spent some quiet time in the monastery chapel in preparation for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. From my chair in the back row, I watched the sisters arrive for the service. Most of them were elderly. They used wheelchairs, walkers or another sister’s arm to make their way into the chapel. As I looked around I noticed that apart from the priest I was the only man in the chapel. This was of some concern to me as I did not know how they were going to orchestrate the washing of the feet. As one of the sisters put it to me later, did I really expect the sisters to "import" twelve men so the "imported" priest could wash their feet?
The service was simple, yet very beautiful. During the homily the priest explained the importance of the washing of the feet . I could not have agreed more. He went on to say that after he had washed the feet of twelve of the sisters we were invited to wash one another’s feet. As a liturgical purist, I was simply mortified at this. My first concern was that he was washing the feet of twelve women as apposed to the prescribed twelve men. Second, what did he mean by all of us were going to wash feet? Why were we straying from the custom of the priest washing the feet of twelve men symbolizing Christ washing the feet of the apostles?
After resisting the temptation to walk out, mostly because I had nowhere to walk to, I swallowed my liturgical pride and decided to stay. Reluctantly I watched the priest wash the feet of twelve sisters. Then I saw how the sisters started washing one another’s feet. As I was trying to make sense out of all this, I noticed one of the sisters making her way to one of her sisters who was sitting in a wheelchair. There she was helped to her knees. Gently and with great difficulty, she took the slippers off her sister’s gnarled feet. A bowl with water was brought to them. She placed her sister’s feet in the water and tenderly washed them. Then she dried them and kissed them.
This simple, yet profound interaction moved me profoundly. Never before had I been so deeply touched by this ritual. These feet, which had walked in the service of the church for more than seventy years, were tenderly washed by these hands, which had served the church for more than sixty years. I quickly slipped off my shoes and waited in line to have my feet washed so I could wash someone else’s feet.
As I reflected upon my experience later that night I finally grasped why Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet. The washing of the feet is not a superfluous ritual gesture or a simple reenactment of what Jesus did 2000 years ago. Rather it is an efficacious ritual rehearsal of what all of us are called to do every day of our life: to serve one another as he served us.