One of the strangest traditions in the Christian church is that of washing people’s feet. Usually when folks outside of the Christian tradition hear about it, they arch their eyebrows and ask “what?”. My own daughter said “eeew” when she heard about what Pope Francis did. But footwashing started with Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper. It was meant to show his humility and willingness to serve his followers by taking up a dirty job (think 1st century sandals, dusty roads, and no pavement). Successive generations of Christian ministers were to emulate Jesus’ example by serving those who they were called to lead. This activity was not necessarily supposed to be followed in the same way communion or baptism were in the Christian tradition – that is, it has not become an established rite of the church. However, many Christian leaders still do footwashing as a sign of their devotion to their charges. It is still a little weird, however, particularly for the person getting their feet washed. It is uncomfortable as someone else washes your feet – my question is, can’t we find another way to show our willingness to serve?
Here’s where Pope Francis’ washing of 12 youths’ feet at the Casal Del Marmo juvenile detention center outside of Rome on Maundy Thursday (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/30/vatican-defends-pope-francis-washing-of-womens-feet_n_2985784.html) comes into play. The act is supposed to make one feel uncomfortable – the washer, the “wash-ee”, the spectators, the church at large. We are supposed to wonder at why this is happening, and what the significance is.
Certainly the event caused no small amount of controversy. Usually Popes have washed 12 men’s feet, in reference to Jesus’ washing of his 12 (men) disciples’ feet. So the washing of two women’s feet at the detention center is perhaps a statement of the universality of servanthood, even from a patriarchal organization like the papacy. We are called to serve everyone.
But beyond the wonderings about the place of women, Pope Francis took us to a new place: He washed Muslim women’s feet. Many have speculated that this might be a precursor to a new interfaith understanding from the Catholic church – http://news.kuwaittimes.net/2013/03/30/papal-ritual-signals-better-ties-with-islam-two-muslims-participate-in-a-foot-washing-ceremony/. I believe that Pope Francis’ actions, while not necessarily signaling a new direction in official theology, certainly set a strong example for interfaith activity.
We who are in a faith community can no longer ignore our brothers and sisters of different religions. They yearn for God, yearn for a deeper understanding of life, are looking for ways to make sense of our place in this world. We are all pilgrims, Francis seems to be saying. Our feet take us on a journey. For some of us, we are in a juvenile detention center, having made bad choices so young in life. We need people and institutions to give us grace and to believe in us. For some of us, our feet are tired and sore after a lifetime of pain and sorrow, and we need someone to kiss them and comfort them after long days.
Feet are a crucial metaphor for the universal journey all people of faith take. We are all on the journey to some place. Religious leaders can help us make sense of that journey, connect us to a community that will empower us and stand by us, and help us gaze upward to what God is doing in our lives and in the world. In the footwashing ceremony, our eyes naturally look down to what is happening: dirt, water, hands. But ultimately, in and around footwashing, is the call to look upwards and be inspired and comforted by God, heaven, the divine.
Critics may say it is grandstanding on behalf of the Pope. Of course he can go to a difficult place and help a few poor souls out because he’ll return to his place of power after 45 minutes. It is just good PR for the Catholic machine, they say. Well, if its grandstanding, and a PR stunt, I’m all for it. I don’t get the sense that this event is too divergent from who the pope really is. His history shows us that this is his way.
Perhaps this is what interfaith leadership really looks like. Do we need more religious leaders schooled in the ways of social networking, fundraising, and web design? Or do we need leaders willing to get down on the ground and kiss people’s feet? In the earliest days of the Christian church, leaders and popes were chosen on the basis of their devotion to God and their willingness to serve. Many didn’t want the position of pope because it took them away from service. Nowadays, ambition in religious leadership is practically encouraged. Go for the bigger congregation, write more books, get more Twitter followers! Is this the way to truer, more effective faith communities? I’m not so sure.
I’m inspired by Francis’ action. Perhaps it can spark a needed humility, certainly from the Christian church, which has often acted like the biggest kid on the schoolyard. Christian arrogance, paternalism, and colonialism have no place in this image of kneeling, cleaning, and affection. Maybe footwashing isn’t so strange after all.