Guest author: Liz Ellmann, MDiv
Teenage feet. Female feet. Muslim feet. Atheist feet. Dark feet. Light feet. The tattooed feet of a prisoner. These are the feet the newly elected Pope Francis chose to wash on Maundy Thursday.
It takes courage and humility to ignore liturgical laws and break with tradition to wash and kiss the feet of twelve juvenile offenders in a detention center instead of washing the feet of twelve priests in the basilica. It’s the kind of courage grounded in love that Jesus modeled throughout his ministry. By turning upside down our staid assumptions about how the world works, we are freed to imagine new ways of being in relationship.
Washing someone’s feet is a tender act. Kissing a stranger’s feet is an intimate act. Seeing photos of Pope Francis compassionately tending to the young prisoners’ feet brought tears for me. Rather than preaching in a basilica about scripture, the poor, and the marginalized, Francis demonstrated with his actions the love and hope that Jesus exhibited.
Francis explained to the young people at the detention center on Maundy Thursday, "This is a symbol, it is a sign; washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service."
Can you imagine being in the shoes of one of those teenagers? Here comes a seventy-something, gray-haired guy—a religious leader which doesn’t mean much to you as an atheist—who offers to wash your feet. You’ve agreed to participate because it might help your probation. The old man kneels on the stone floor in a vulnerable position beneath you. You are comfortably seated on a bench overlooking him.
As you take off your sneakers, it dawns on you that your feet don’t smell very good. No matter. You are perhaps a tough, street-smart, hard-hearted dude. Yet when the old man touches your feet ever so gently and pours warm water over your calloused heals, you notice that it feels good to be cared for. After drying your toes tenderly with a soft clean towel, he bends to kiss your feet. Then searchingly, he looks you in the eye, saying, "Don't lose hope. Understand? With hope you can always go on." He hands you an Easter egg as a gift.
What a beautiful inspiration for April, for Passover, and for Easter season. Every day, opportunities arise for us to be courageously hopeful. As spiritual directors, we are called to be of service in our world, to stand with and for our loving and compassionate God. May we cultivate compassion by companioning seekers with the courage to say, “Don’t lose hope. With hope you can always go on.”
Reflection: What staid assumptions can you turn upside down to discover new ways of being in relationship with others? What stories inspire your hope? Share your response below.