By Elrena Evans
Jesus knew that the Father had given him complete power; he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. So he rose from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around his waist. Then he poured some water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
~ John 13:3-5
The year my eldest daughter was in kindergarten, she began bugging me to take her to the Maundy Thursday footwashing service at our church six weeks before the event.
“I want to go,” she says.
“It’s going to be a long service, late at night,” I warn her, cognizant of both her bedtime and mine, currently almost nine months pregnant with Baby #4.
“I want to go.”
“You’re probably going to be the only child there,” I say.
“I want to go!”
So we go.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?” Jesus answered him, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.”
~ John 13:6-7
My daughter’s eyes are wide as she enters the sanctuary. This place, so familiar to her, is incongruent at night in its somber hush. With the exception of a tiny baby wrapped securely on his mother’s back in a sling, she is the youngest person here. We slide into our pew, and the service begins.
She watches the proceedings with a grave expression, self-consciously determined to be solemn. Kneeling, her nose barely clears the shelf on which the prayer book rests in front of her, and she clasps her hands in prayer fervently. With the exception of a quick smile during the sermon, when the priest makes an allusion to The Chronicles of Narnia, she is the picture of seriousness. My hands rest over the fluttering kicks in my middle, and I watch her.
I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.
~ John 13:14
When the time comes for the footwashing, she is the first person in the aisle, tugging at my hand. Her strawberry-blonde hair bounces as she capers toward the altar, all pretense of solemnity forgotten. Reaching the footwashing station, though, she grows uncharacteristically shy and ducks behind me at the last second.
“You go first,” she whispers.
I lower myself and my rounded abdomen into the chair, and one of the priests bends and washes my feet. When my feet are dried I stand, and my daughter clambers into the chair for her turn, dropping one of her shoes into the basin of water in her excitement. The priest quickly fishes it out, and I kneel on the slate floor beside her to wash her feet.
As I dip my hands into the water and pour it over her feet, I am struck by the ordinary nature of the gesture in this, an unordinary service. Footwashing isn’t a common occurrence in this sanctuary; it happens only once a year. In previous years I’ve been moved, even humbled, to participate. But this year, running my fingers over my daughter’s little feet, I think to myself, I wash these feet all the time.
Running my fingers over my daughter’s little feet, I think to myself, I wash these feet all the time.
When my daughter’s feet are washed and dried, she turns to the next person in line—the woman with the baby on her back—and kneels to wash her feet. The ritual complete, she skips back to her seat in our pew, dragging me along by the hand.
After Jesus had washed their feet, he put his outer garment back on and returned to his place at the table. “Do you understand what I have just done to you?” he asked. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am.
~ John 13:12-13
As we settle into our seats I see another family making their way back from the footwashing, a family with a teenaged son. I look at the father and realize: he no longer washes his son’s feet. The tiny toes I’m sure he once bathed and kissed have outgrown the baby bath; his son now stands nearly as tall as his father.
I look at my daughter, sitting in the pew beside me, way past her bedtime, taking in all that is happening. And I realize that, someday soon, washing her feet will be foreign to me. Someday we will come to this service, and I will bend to wash her feet, and I will be moved. Even humbled. When that day comes, will I have prepared her to be ready to go out and wash the feet God has called her to wash in this world?
Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets. This article first appeared in American Bible Society’s publication Uncover the Word.