I was a junior in college when I experienced it first. I remember a dinner beforehand that I didn't enjoy...I was too anxious about what was to come. Then the trip upstairs to the church parlor with other women of faith comfortable and prepared. But not me.
I remember sitting beside my roommate in a small circle of chairs. Seats filled with faces of sisters who knew the coming steps. But I didn't. I remember, as if in slow motion, watching shoes discarded. Socks and stockings put away. And me, I followed suit but only because I didn't know what else to do.
I don't remember if words of instructions were spoken. About what this was. Or why. Or how. I don't remember if there was singing or silence or something in between. But I remember I was afraid. And I remember being angry out of fear.
I remember watching with intense eyes like a trapped animal as it's predator nears. Trying to take it in just for survival's sake. Because it would be my turn at some point and I hadn't the faintest idea what I was doing.
Basins. Water. Towels. A well-loved ritual that seemed to be smothering me.
Did my friend see the frightened face I surely wore?
Could she hear the pounding of a heart afraid?
The clanking of the basins. The ladling of water. None of it was as loud as the pressure in my head as every heartbeat pulsed blood through my body.
Maybe I could leave. Slip out without too many eyes following. This surely was not where I was supposed to be on this Thursday night before Good Friday.
Breathe. The natural task became difficult. The inhale was fear. The exhale anger. Inhale. Fear. Exhale. Anger. Fear. Anger.
And then it was too late. In stop-motion fashion, escape became impossible as an unfamiliar woman placed a basin of water in front of my naked feet. My already rapid pulse quickened as this woman knelt on the floor in front of me. The thronging pulse of my life-blood flooded my ears as she lifted my foot and placed it in the basin. It all seemed too much. Now I had no breath.
Before I realized it, this unknown graying woman had washed both of my feet and was drying them with a towel. She looked up and smiled. The audible pulsing in my head waned. My heart rate slowed from the rhythm of fear to relief. My wringing hands separated. And then I heard it. Singing. From all over the room. Sopranos and altos, trained and not, linking notes together in song. Had they been doing this all along? Had I been deaf to these melodies?
It has been many years since that particular night. I have washed many feet since that time and have had many wash mine. There has been no other Maundy Thursday ordinance quite like that first one. None quite so memorable. And as I look back over these years of Holy Week washings, I can't help but be thankful for the fearsome first that paved the way for faithful participation hence.
"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,
you also should wash one another’s feet.
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master,
nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
- John 13:14-17