Washing the feet of all, even strangers

by Father Bert Miller


Pope Francis kisses the foot of a refugee during Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper at the Center for Asylum Seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, near Rome March 24, 2016. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

One summer day 28 years ago while I was on an internship out in the middle of the diocese, I went to a trailer house to give communion to an old man who lived there alone. This was maybe the third time I had been to his home.

I always dreaded going because the house smelled. It smelled of impending death. I don’t know if the man had cancer or what was his medical problem; I just knew that his house smelled.

This day, when I got there, the old man was not yet up for the day. I knew to yell for him and to go in; I waited in the living room. And I waited. Finally, he yelled for me to come back to the bedroom.

I found him sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear and undershirt with one brown sock in his hand. He couldn’t find his second sock. Would I find it for him? He thought it might be caught in his trousers, which were in a heap on the floor. Reaching into the leg of his trousers, I found the sock.

Then, he asked me to help him get dressed. That impending death smell was quite intense in the bedroom. The man’s legs were covered with sores – some healing, others open and oozing. I put his socks on and pulled them up over some of the sores. I got him into his pants too.

When I had an opportunity, I ran to the sink and washed up to my elbows. I never thought I would be dressing someone in ministry. This was really service. I was caring for someone I didn’t even know.

I washed the feet – so to speak – of an unknown person with tender and loving care. I did what Jesus called his disciples and all of us to do: “Wash one another’s feet as I have washed yours.”

That day is like yesterday. It is readily in my mind when I celebrate Holy Thursday and the ritual of washing feet. It is the care that we extend to one another – friend and stranger – that is center to discipleship and following the instruction of Jesus to “wash one another’s feet.”

Who’s feet do you wash these days? A parent? A spouse? A child? A friend? A stranger?

Father Bert Miller serves as pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Park River and St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Veseleyville.

Editor’s note: Stories of Faith is a recurring feature in New Earth. If you have a faith story to tell, contact Father Bert Miller at bert.miller@fargodiocese.org.

The significance of feet washing

The Christian rite of washing of feet owes its origins to the Gospel passage of John 13:1-15. The Lord’s command at the end of the passage cannot be missed: “If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Jesus’ command inspired Christian communities to adopt this action as a sign of loving hospitality offered to guests, a practice kept over the centuries, particularly in monastic houses. The rite found its way into the liturgy as early as the 4th century and not long after that came to be practiced in many churches on Holy Thursday.

A respectful way to approach the rite of foot washing is to recognize that it exists within the on-going feast of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil (the Triduum) and all of Lent and all of life; it is about passage through life and it is about passion for life. In this Gospel, the eternal Word of God (Jesus) lowers himself to the feet of those he came to save. God’s presence and glory are revealed where least expected, in humble foot washing. By inviting the disciples to wash one another’s feet, Jesus invites them, and us, into his hour of glory through the wondrous servant action of hospitality.

That “feet” are washed may turn us off, but there is real significance to this. The Israelites “walked dry shod through the sea.” Jesus walked out into the waters of the Jordan to be washed with the Spirit and the waters covered his feet. It is those feet that are nailed to the cross. In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus invites them to join him in passage and passion.