As Holy Week begins, I am reminded of an unforgettable experience which happened some 20 years ago. 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 on Holy Thursday. 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.
The service was simple, yet very beautiful. At the time of the washing of the feet, the priest explained that we were going to wash one another’s feet. As a liturgical purist, I was simply mortified at the thought. What could this mean? Why were we straying from the custom of the priest washing the feet of twelve men symbolizing Christ washing the feet of the apostles?
I swallowed my liturgical pride and tried to enter into the experience. As I was pondering all this, I noticed a sister being helped to the front of the chapel. When she arrived at the row of wheelchairs, she was helped to her knees in front of one of her sisters. 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. I felt tears running down my cheeks. 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.
Witnessing this 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.