Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
What does it mean to wash one another’s feet today? Foot washing is popular at this time of year in church services and is practised at some Ordination services.
In 2003 Dr Rowan Williams revived the ancient custom of foot washing at a Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury – it was reported on by The Guardian newspaper.
Apparently every British sovereign had offered foot washing until the 1730s when the ruling Hanoverians decided it was beneath their dignity. But the symbolic power of a very senior cleric agreeing to wash other people’s feet, had obviously made an impression on the Guardian reporter, who wrote:
‘Many bishops and other priests in Britain now perform the feet-washing ceremony, known in Latin as the pedilavium. Dr Williams had traditionally performed the task in his previous role as a bishop and archbishop in Wales.
But Thursday night was the first time, at least since the Reformation, that an archbishop of Canterbury has stooped so low.
The 12 parishioners chosen to have their feet washed on Thursday night were aged from nine to 72 and represented a cross-section of church membership. Dr Williams hoisted his sleeves and rinsed their feet before patting them dry with an individual white towel.
Some of the younger ones giggled slightly with the archbishop looking up, smiling encouragingly at them as he finished the job.
"I was a bit nervous and excited," said Annalisa Flood, 13, daughter of the cathedral choirmaster. "I washed my feet first specially."’
The fact that this little girl had felt the need to wash her feet first rather detracts from the power of the ritual, and perhaps highlights the limitations of lifting a culturally powerful ritual out of its initial setting and transposing it to another, where, generally speaking, we all wear closed shoes, walk on tarmac, and wash our own feet in the shower.
Much as we might admire those whose spirituality leads them to wash other people’s feet, even previously cleaned ones; it leaves us with the question: what is a 21st Century equivalent of foot washing which we can practice towards each other?
Because we do need to find ways to be serving and loving each other, as we follow Christ’s example this Holy Week.
I wonder what you would come up with, if asked to think of a culturally appropriate way of showing love and service to other people in Christ’s name?
An image that first came into my mind was of the late Princess Diana, shaking hands with AIDS patients.
When she opened Britain’s first purpose built ward for HIV/Aids patients in 1987, she was the first public figure to be seen shaking hands with someone suffering from a disease then feared and derided as a ‘gay plague’.
Beforehand she had faced criticism for putting her children at risk by rejecting advice to wear protective clothing to avoid germs.
Her caring gestures and simple handshakes with AIDS sufferers spoke volumes about love and acceptance and helped break down fear and prejudice about the disease. The photographs of her doing this, the juxtaposition of a glamorous and famous princess sitting talking almost cozily with a gaunt young man, intensified the power of the gesture.
But perhaps even that’s not exactly the right image for us to take away this Maundy Thursday, living as we are, 27 years further on...
And so an image I suggest we might take away is of listening as a form of loving service.
In our increasingly noisy world, Julian Treasure, a speaker on the TED talks forum (see handout) has said that we are losing our listening.
I’m sure he has a point.
Everyone is so busy broadcasting, advertising or defending their own truth positions, our lives are full of voices and words, even if only in the forms of 100s of emails, we are in danger of forgetting how to listen.
The world is very noisy: our lives are very busy.
When someone gives you the gift of listening they are giving you their time (a precious commodity today) and their attention (which our increasingly technological world is sapping).
When someone listens, they impart the message that you are important and valued.
Julian Treasure, on his TED talk, says that when he got married, he said to his wife, ‘I promise that when you speak, I will try and listen to you as if hearing your voice for the first time’. What a thought!
It is a great risk to be a listener. You risk all sorts of people taking advantage, just like Jesus took a risk with Judas, yet still offered him broken bread and the cup of wine. You risk not being heard yourself. You have to slow down, give up your own limelight and act out of loving humility. It seems in many ways to be entirely in the spirit of foot washing.
When I think of the people I know, there are not many who know how to really listen. Research suggests that we are distracted for about 75% of the time when we are supposed to be listening to someone.
The average attention span of an adult listening is about 22 seconds. Immediately after listening to someone talk, we recall about half; after a few hours, only about 20%
When we think of the church, we know there are those special ones who do give others the time of day; who are gracious listeners; who listen across age barriers, who go away from a conversation understanding more. Will we be those people?
There are undoubtedly those whose voices we would rather not hear: in any community there are those who feel their voices are silenced. There are no doubt voices in our churches that we have not heard, who nonetheless have something important to say.
Amongst Jesus’ followers there were the strident voices of James and John who wanted to call down thunder on the unrepentant; there was the voice of Peter, refusing to have his feet washed and making promises of loyalty he couldn't keep.
To listen well is to value someone – essentially to be willing to love, as Jesus commanded us. ‘You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand’, said Jesus. Later you will see that loving service is to be the hall mark of your life as my followers.
When we listen, we are not just attending to the sound of the words, we are attending to the direction of that person’s life. You could argue there’s no sharing of the Good News without listening, listening to that gap in the conversation where someone admits to a need, to a doubt, to a hope that there might be more to life than this, where they reach out to God for healing and forgiveness.
How many times have I failed to perceive that moment of grace, that moment of growth, because in the pause in conversation, I have rushed in with too many words…?
After church coffee conversation is a classic example. Slow down and listen with the ears of the Spirit!
At our Community Coffee Morning in Whitchurch, I like to think that people who come, if they find anything there, will find a welcome and listening ear.
It’s when someone has given me the grace of listening that I have often known the fresh touch of God in my life, or have understood something important for that time about God’s guidance.
As we have thought about different images of loving service, the washing of dirty feet; the washing of clean feet, shaking hands with an AIDS sufferer; maybe we can take on board afresh the act of loving service which is listening.
Imagine if people said of the church: that’s the group of people who have time to listen!
And as we listen to each other, we might find we are actually surprised by hearing the voice of God.