Watching my daughter graduate from nursing school, I wonder just how many varied kinds of feet she will wash in her new career as a nurse. Toughened up by miles of being walked on, our feet are witness to those barefoot times we step into our baby's room to check on them, the shoes we shove them into praying they won't be too tight, the sandals, the pedicures, the lotions, the wool socks we knit for them. Our feet show our age, our history, even our ancestry, in ways nothing else can.
I remember thinking of Mary, mother of Jesus, as I glimpsed a pair of sandaled feet across from me in the Palestinian line at a checkpoint on the West Bank. The young mother had with her a 4-year-old son, who tugged at her hands and long black skirt.
Her feet were thick with calluses, her sandals durable but worn down in the back where she had to carry large, heavy bundles, such as a child in her arms.
Those powerful words of Jesus ring in my ears: "Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet."
Yet shaking dust off is easier said than done. I think of how many times during visits Jesus and Mary had to wash their feet upon entering any home.
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The idea of washing feet is a highly charged one throughout history. Because it was considered the filthiest part of the body (as well as a metaphor for other body parts), it was the most reviled job of all.
Jesus teaches that if I do not wash you and your ugly, dirty, barnacle-looking, swollen feet, you have no part with me. Can we really accept such a radical concept of service? Accept the entire human body as an altar for service with, to and for others?
This is the time of year when thousands of young people graduate and embark on careers in service to others. These others have bodies too -- they are the altars of God, the high places that will be practiced upon. But have we as a society encouraged such service? Or have we become so tied up with the idea of financial outcomes, winners and losers, that service to others, our communities, our world has become merely a naive concept?
We already enjoy a present where there is a decrease in scientists, physicians, teachers, nurses, postal workers, police officers, farm workers and farm owners. These positions are becoming ever more difficult to fill for any number of reasons, as the need grows for quality not quantity.
Have our children and grandchildren been given examples of public figures who will inspire them to follow, dare we say, noble goals?
Have we raised those minority voices of struggle and achievement, many times doing so through noble goals, to the forefront of our awareness where they can actually encourage us?
Standing in line with a Palestinian woman, I saw my own future as a minority. Here in this world where minorities lack rights, I realized that, one day, I'll lack them too. I will be elderly, God willing, and be placed in a category. Our bodies will continue to define us, as well as stifle the future, as long as human beings judge one another on appearance, actions and the millions of thoughts that come out of them totally unfiltered.
Mercifully, St. Peter gives us a model answer when he says to Jesus, if you insist on washing my feet, then wash all of me as well. It is a commencement speech, however brief, as he pledges his entire self to the service of the Lord. The entire body, not just the clean parts but the callused parts, the stupid and foolish parts, the parts that will make mistakes and the parts that will reject others and act disgusting -- all are pledged to service.
How timely that Pope Francis has placed us in this Year of Mercy when our national electoral process looms ever closer. We can see and experience actions to others and for others as we journey on foot in the communal life and well-being of the church.
[Sue Stanton is a journalist and author of Great Women of Faith: Inspiration for Action. She writes from Ames, Iowa. All of the Soul Seeing columns can be read at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]