By Sarah Streitwieser
There is a story behind the mess, a tale that has become a fixture in the mixture of fact and folklore that makes up our family history. I’ll let you imagine the details, but the story involves our curious and mechanically minded 7-year-old, a siphon, and an ill-fated fish. Ten gallons of water damage explains why Streitwiesers no long own aquatic pets. It also explains the massive water stain that settled into our kitchen ceiling in late December (merry Christmas to me!).
Fast forward four months and add a shelter-in-place order that forces us all to stay at home. The brown water stain, uncannily positioned in the direct sight-line of my makeshift work desk, could no longer be ignored.
My husband and I taped plastic drop cloth over the kitchen cabinets and doorways, we stuffed the vents with hand towels, and popcorn removal ensued. It’s a messy job. (And that is a massive understatement). Even with our “mess control” preparations, a fine white dust has frosted every surface of our home.
We’ve swept, vacuumed, and mopped (not exaggerating – four times!), and there are still cloudy white footprints across our kitchen floor. Stubborn footprints litter our home on the day our Gospel speaks to us about foot washing. Speaking of uncanny, direct sight-lines …
On the first Holy Thursday, in the evening of the Passover that will become the first Eucharistic meal, Jesus washes the feet of His friends. It is an act of hospitality, of love, and of humble service; Our Lord gathers His disciples around Himself. He serves; He gives His total self.
St. Peter bristles, “The Lord of heaven and earth to wash my feet?” Jesus assures him, “unless I wash your feet, you will not be clean.” St. Peter expands, “then clean all of me, Lord!” Jesus patiently explains, “I have already cleaned you. I have baptized you and formed you with my love and friendship over these past three years. You are clean; you are ready. But your venial sins — the dust of your travel and the grime of your daily work — must be removed. You must be clean to receive me.” (Jn. 13: 1-10, dialogue imagined)
Holy Thursday and the Holy Triduum begins with feet and dust; a mini reconciliation offered by our Lord. The betrayal, denial, suffering, death, and glorious resurrection – the events that form the life-though-death Pascal Mystery of our faith – are imminent. And our Lord concerns Himself with dusty feet.
For many of us, the shelter-in-place guidelines have force-focused our attention on our families. Without the distractions of school, work, sports practices – or basically anything that would typically cause us to leave our homes – we are left to look directly at each other, at our families.
For many parents, we are newly reminded of stains we’ve been purposefully ignoring for some time. Perhaps we notice unwanted patterns in communication – short tempers, sarcastic tones, or uncharitable responses. Perhaps we notice friction in our relationships – between spouses, between siblings, or between parent and child.
Without opportunity for distraction, we see what we’ve ignored, and begin our differed scraping. It’s counterintuitive, but growth often begins with what appears to be regression. By dealing with one mess, we seemly create an even bigger mess; a simple ceiling stain turns into an entire home streaked with milky white footprints. Hours are devoted to cleaning – not just the mess, but the mess created by the mess and the mess behind the mess. It’s a veritable exponential growth factor of messes, it’s a pandemic of dirty footprints.
Jesus knows that spiritual growth also creates spiritual mess. He invites us to journey with Him and labor with Him; our feet inevitably get soiled, but he offers to wash them along the way.
Perhaps it goes without saying, this is not a typical Holy Week. If we were able to participate in a typical Holy Thursday Mass tonight, we would observe our priests wash the feet of 12 fellow parishioners, symbolic of our entire Parish.
The liturgy of Holy Thursday (and of the entire Triduum and of every Mass!) uniquely expresses – re-presents or makes present – the events of the Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Holy Thursday simultaneously reaches backwards and forwards through time. We are invited backward, to participate with Jesus and His disciples in the first Passover-turned-Eucharistic-Feast. Simultaneously, the gifts and graces of the first Holy Thursday apply forward into our homes and hearts; Jesus offers to wash our feet in perfect love.
If your family is anything like ours, you are likely experiencing some degree of mess at home – your own version of footprint dusted floors. Holy Thursday is your opportunity, not to wash the floor, but to wash the feet. Ask Jesus to wash your own feet first. Present Him with your venial litany of unkind responses, lost tempers, and anxiety induced failings. He is ready for you, but you must allow Him to do His work.
Next, wash the feet of your spouse and children through the endless opportunities of service that this season requires. Homeschooling, meal making, house cleaning, emotion supporting – the service opportunities are endless. “If I … have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for your, you should also do” (Jn. 13:14-15).
You may get a bit of dirt on yourself, as you wash the feet of your family members. You may create new messes by fixing old mess and track all the messes across your floor. Fear not. Jesus will wash your feet again and again.
This year, YOU are invited to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy in a uniquely familial way. Check out Ascension Family Life Ministry’s foot washing guide here:
Resources for observing Good Friday at home with your family can be found here: