Changing traditions

basin_and_towel_hands_400I mentioned in a recent 
Maundy Thursday post that my church family has a tradition of foot-washing at our Maundy Thursday services. When a neighbor and I were comparing our Holy Week traditions, she told me her church has a foot-washing ceremony too. But they changed it. These days the congregants and clergy are too old for all that kneeling and bending. So now they have a hand-washing ceremony instead!

Now, my first thought was, Hey, that’s pretty cool. You’ve got the same symbolism of service, but it’s more accessible now. Kind of like using gluten-free crackers and grape juice for Holy Communion.

On the other hand, I wonder if the awkwardness and difficulty of foot-washing are a necessary part of the symbolism. Removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pant legs, allowing someone to kneel in front of you and hold your sweaty, linty feet in their hands—this seems much more intimate than having someone pour water into your palms. Isn’t it?

I wonder:

  • Is that intimacy, that vulnerability, a necessary part of the ritual?
  • In changing traditions this way, do we lose something important?
  • Is such loss acceptable if more people are able to participate in the experience?

I don’t know. But I like wondering about it and discussing it.

Traditions themselves are not holy. They are simply containers that allow us to experience intangible, holy realities. Changing traditions doesn’t change the reality they convey.

Does it?

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Changing traditions”

  1. One of the stories that will always stay with me was from an Indian pastor who said foot washing, especially in reaching the “untouchables”, moved them to weep and even to accept Christ. To humble yourself to serve at the feet of another is the whole point; and to accept that service is the other. I don’t think there is a substitute, although there are many ways we can serve each other as we are able.

    • I understand what you’re saying, Amanda, and maybe the foot-washing is essential in that context—because it speaks so powerfully in a culture where relationships are determined by the caste system. But in my neighbor’s church of old people and old traditions, maybe the fact that they are willing to accommodate speaks just as powerfully. I wonder if old people learn to accept that there are some things they just can’t participate in (just as India’s untouchables do), and I wonder how they felt when they heard the church was going to make this ceremony available to them again. I don’t know.

      Of course, I haven’t actually experienced the hand washing ceremony, so I can’t judge how good a substitute it is. I suppose there are a lot of factors that might determine whether it comes off as a watered-down version (ignore the pun) or a meaningful alternative.

  2. I’ve been embarrassed for years about going barefoot in public as I am missing a toe after a long ago accident. A few years ago a former neighbor, and friend, preached at our Maundy Thursday service. When the foot washing began this man sent his daughter to ask me if she could wash my feet. I could not refuse her. We sat with her family as she washed my feet like they were normal. I knelt and washed the feet of each member of her family. I felt humbled, and set free of some internal thing at the same time. I have not yet washed the feet of a stranger, and hope to find the nerve to do that someday. I would be much more comfortable washing the hands of a stranger, and I know that comfort is not what this is about.

    • It’s amazing how often the things we are most embarrassed or worried about are not a big deal to the people around us!

      Another interesting factor: Foot-washing is a fairly new tradition at my church; I remember when it was introduced at our Maundy Thursday service several years ago. And I think it’s fair to say that part of its power is in its newness. In other words, one of the reasons the symbol is so striking is simply that it is so unusual. The first disciples would barely have noticed if a servant girl had washed their feet—that was normal. But to have their miracle-working Rabbi strip and serve in this way was beyond their imagination and made an emotional, indelible impression. So how do we keep ourselves from “getting used to” the tradition? The first time someone does it is uncomfortable and unusual, and therefore memorable. But does it have the same impact the fourth time or the sixth time or the fiftieth time?

      I hesitate to ask the question because it borders on wanting to manufacture emotions. Emotions are an important part of our traditions, but they are not a reliable gauge of whether a truth is hitting home. Still, they may be a way to seal a truth that does hit home. People often remember a feeling long after they forget other details of an event.

      I know I’m rambling. Just more things to wonder about!

  3. Since I still feel some anxiety about going to our foot washing service the answer for me is no I’m not getting used to this. I still find the thought of washing an adults feet, or even someone I know washing mine, uncomfortable. My experience with this was wonderful, but it was safer to experience with “family”. If once a year I could wash a strangers feet I really am not sure this could become normal.

  4. It could be a family of origin thing. My mother was always concerned about what the neighbors would possibly think about us. I assume that since I’m not comfortable going barefoot in front of friends, and family, that I would feel more uncomfortable having my feet washed by a stranger.
    As I thought of an answer to your question I realized that I wouldn’t have any hesitation washing the feet of someone I loved.

    • I was just curious because Jesus’ model wasn’t about making yourself as uncomfortable as possible. He was among friends, and he was demonstrating the attitude shift He wanted to see in them, that service is our purpose.

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