My junior year in college I attended a small school in the south of France, right across the border from Geneva, Switzerland. On the campus was a small seminary. The seminarians who had gathered there to study brought a balance to the group of 35 Americans who had invaded the small school in an attempt to learn French. The faculty that taught our classes was small, 4 total professors. Pierre De Luca was our culture teacher. A true Parisian, he was the epitome of a French gentleman. He lacked much of the stuffy Parisian sophistication and was more concerned about our education and engagement in the french culture around us.
Towards the end of the first quarter the seminary and church there on campus held communion. In my denomination, the communion service is typically preceded by what is called the “ordinance of humility” or basically footwashing. The process for footwashing is simple: Men and women separate and once in their respective areas will pair off. Each person will get a basin of water, kneel with their partner, pray, and then wash their feet. Then you switch and repeat. I grew up doing this in church so it was nothing knew to me. I don’t remember who my partner was (I think it was a seminary student from Austria), but what happened afterwards was what I will never forget.
As we finished, Monsieur De Luca came walking up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. In clear English he said “In France we take communion and footwashing very seriously. It is a time for us to remember Christ’s sacrifice to forgive us of all we have done wrong. I want to apologize to you if I have not been as helpful to you in learning the language and culture here. I am sorry if I have caused you any grief. I wish that you would forgive me. If you need me for any reason, please ask. I want to be more than just a teacher, but a friend.” He then gave me a hug and kiss on both cheeks as a true Frenchman would. As I looked around the room each person was doing the same thing. Asking forgiveness of their partner and offering their humble service in friendship.
While the purpose behind the footwashing is noble (following the humble service of Jesus washing his disciples feet) it is increasingly looked down on by younger members of my church. Who really wants to wash sock lint off of old man toes? Few people see a purpose in it anymore. But in that moment where my teacher, my superior in so many ways, humbly asked my forgiveness and offered his service my eyes were opened to a higher meaning.
He hadn’t just recited a few lines written on the wall as he worked his way around the room. His asking for forgiveness was specific and unique to me. His submission to service wasn’t about him setting an example or teaching another lesson. It was truly from the heart as he sought to serve much the same way that his savior had done 2000 years prior.
I’ve heard many sermons about the last supper and the significance behind every action Jesus took that night. And I often feel like we overlook the footwashing. But it was the last living example Jesus gave us of how to treat our fellow human beings. There is no action too low for us to offer our service to others. Footwashing was something servants did. It was dirty. Imagine the barefoot feet of 13 men who walk the countryside for a living. Imagine humbling yourself to do the same thing a prostitute who had done for Jesus previously. These were strong men, waiting to set up a kingdom and whose conversation that evening revolved around who was going to be the greatest and how to arm themselves for the conquest.
I feel like Christians have a hard time fully understanding when Jesus says “Blessed are the meek”. We all believe we are humble and say things like “I’m just doing the Lords work” or “I’m just servant of God”. But have you ever really thought of what service means? What humility means?
How would you give yourself and submit yourself to serving another person?
Are we even willing to go that far?
Christian service is more than donating to a cause or signing up for the bake sale. It’s feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison. It may be giving baths to people in nursing homes or cleaning bed pans for a clinic. It’s in setting down the protest signs, forgetting about the politics and asking a world to forgive us for complicating such a simple message of Love and Service. If Christianity truly followed in Jesus footsteps, going so far as to wash the feet of our fellow man, how much better would all of our lives be?
There are many customs, habits, and rituals that Christianity has. Each denomination has something that throughout time has slowly lost its significance. I don’t know of any other denomination that does footwashing. And while it may not be my favorite “ritual”, that gives me all the more reason to do it. The footwashing is a reminder of what kind of savior we believe in. And whether you engage in a proverbial footwashing or a literal one, as you reflect on Easter remember the kind of Christian Jesus has called us to be. One following his example.