When I lived at the Green House – one of the homes at L’Arche Daybreak – I shared life with Bill. A man who loved (really) old, dry jokes and a “real” breakfast (i.e. bacon and eggs), Bill also required assistance with some personal care due to a degenerative muscle condition. As he had difficulty bending over, one way I could help Bill was in washing his feet. So in the midst of our morning banter, I would routinely kneel down and wash Bill’s feet.
It was only some years after he died that I began to recognize the trust Bill placed in me the years I lived with him. The sheer dailiness of the act – in the midst of so many other fundamentally important little tasks – (thankfully) prevented me from going off into spontaneous theological reflection.
After Bill was gone I began to wonder about those very ordinary days and seemingly trivial moments of trust. By letting me care for his body, Bill also let me into his life in a profound and intimate way. This gave me the opportunity to recognize the brokenness and pain of his life, yet also give thanks for the God-given gift that Bill was to so many.
Was this something that happened for Jesus’ disciples after he washed their feet? This event probably appeared much less ordinary to the twelve than my washing of Bill’s feet. Yet perhaps they too only realized the depth of what Jesus enacted for them on that night after his death and resurrection. Only with the transformed eyes of the resurrection could the disciples recognize the full importance of this profound act of humility and communion. This impression was so strong for John’s community that they kept the ritual of foot washing as a sign of Jesus’ presence among them as lord and servant.
This past Maunday Thursday I took part in this tradition with the congregation I attend when I participated in the act of washing one other’s feet. While I am deeply grateful that my church has kept alive this ritual in its lenten worship, I must admit that it does not come close to the meaning I found in foot washing when I lived in L’Arche.
The Christian ritual of foot washing that traditionally happens on Maunday Thursday is perhaps the most universally enacted religious tradition in all the L’Arche communities throughout the world. On this day foot washing occurs in L’Arche whether the community exists in the United States or Slovakia or Japan or Australia.
In communities that struggle ecumenically around who can and cannot receive communion, the tradition of washing one another’s feet has become a sign of true Christian unity. It seems that even in places where L’Arche attempts to live a reality which includes more than one faith, foot washing remains a ritual that everyone can participate in.
I deeply miss not being a part of the ritual of foot washing in L’Arche.
For there is something in this tradition that has both profound meaning and universal significance. In a way, people in L’Arche participate in foot washing every day: in the midst of daily life personal care and service happen continually. Yet when that habitual care is placed within the setting of the church and worship, one’s “ordinary” experience becomes transformed into the work of grace and the Holy Spirit that it truly is. One realizes that God has been communicating and healing and working in all our daily life. Even through the most humble acts of care and compassion Christ is present to us and desiring communion.
Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of this tradition for me always occured when core members – those in L’Arche with developmental disabilities – washed my feet. In a visceral way this always embodied the “great reversal” that Jesus inaugurated when he proclaimed the kingdom of God among us.
So often it was tempting – and still is tempting – to think that I was the one serving and the core members the ones receiving. But when Bill stooped down to wash my feet I had to recognize this as nothing less than an illusion. For all of Bill’s trust beckoned me to not just serve him but to actually become his friend, someone who I could honour as a fellow child of God and thus intimately let into my life.
As Jesus might say to people with intellectual disabilities today, “I no longer call you clients/ residents/ patients/ children but friends” (see John 15:15). And the friendship that Bill called me to was one where he also could extend compassion and grace to me through the daily acts of sharing life together.
Thus I realized that not only did Bill need me to flourish, but I needed him just as much (or even more) to be a fully alive human being. Without him I could continue to go on believing that my strength and ability made me a person acceptable to God and society. With him in my life, however, I had to realize that I could only become a follower of Jesus through mutual trust and community.
Can we take the time to listen to the Bills in our own churches, communities and cities? Will we let people with cognitive disabilities wash our feet and transform our conceptions of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be human? Can we make the conversion to see Bill not as a client but as a friend?
May we be open to the Holy Spirit to begin this Christian journey of peace and reconciliation today, and to embody Christ’s command: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
Jason Greig was a Student Associate with Anabaptist Disabilities Network when he wrote this reflection in 2012.