Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Theology of Pedicures

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.   
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’  Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’  Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you.’  For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’  
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  ~ John 13:1-15
Well then.  I've really struggled with these verses for a long time.  Because on the one hand, Jesus is really clear here: Wash one another's feet.  I did it for you, you do it for others.  Hop to it.  And we don't have a whole lot of really specific commands from Christ.  Lots of "love one another" type stuff, but less "pick up a towel and a bowl of water and wash people's feet".  So, I feel like we should definitely take this seriously.

On the other hand, Jesus washing his disciples' feet had huge cultural connotations that I just think are really, really lost on people today.  In the first century, the task of foot-washing fell to either the individual in question, or a household servant/slave.  It was dirty and gross and disgusting (lots of walking around barefoot or in sandals on dusty, unpaved roads), and the whole thing reeked of what amounts to a caste system.  So, it wasn't just that Jesus was doing something sort of gross and personal for his disciples, he, Jesus - God incarnate - was taking on the job normally given to a slave.

Now, in modern (particularly Western) society, washing feet just doesn't make that kind of cultural statement.  If we insisted on washing someone's feet - taking care of their own personal hygiene for them - it would pretty much just be weird - not really culturally shocking or making some kind of grandiose "serve your neighbor" statement.  In this time and place, washing the feet of one's dinner guests would be meaningless at best.  At worst, it might turn others off to Christianity.  (If I become a Christian, do I have to let other people touch my feet all the time?)

Jesus said "do it".  But it's meaningless, and I don't think God tells us to do things just for the sake of doing them - the things we do serve a purpose.  But he did say "do it."  So now what?

Some traditions or congregations have adopted practices of doing "foot-washing displays" on Maundy Thursday.  Everyone can come up and have their feet washed in the Communion line, the same way we do ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Some recognize that people have personal space issues and so they set up "hand-washing stations" instead.  Some just have a few people (any number from a small family to 12, representing the disciples) go sit up at the chancel and have their feet washed while everybody else watches. To be perfectly frank, I find these to be worse than not doing it at all.  It reminds me of kids being ultra-good the week before Christmas in hopes that Santa will think they've been doing it all along.  No part of the Church views foot-washing as a "sacrament".  It strikes me that, if we're supposed to be doing it, we're supposed to be doing it for real, not just in an awkward showy way on Maundy Thursday. 

But how?  What are gross things we ask "the servants" to do, nowadays?  Laundry? Cleaning the bathroom?  Doing dishes?  Could we do them for one another?  Would it speak to those we love the same way Jesus' service spoke to his disciples?

Cue the Sister's Wedding. 

I had never had a pedicure until last month.  For a variety of reasons ranging from "I hate my weird, awkward feet" to "I'm cheap" to "this is so self-indulgent and there are children starving in Africa", I'd just never really gotten around to it.  Plus, I feel like it's one of those things that, after a certain point, everyone assumes you've done, and then when you go and you've never done it before, it's just weird and everyone wonders what's wrong with you.  But my sister wanted me and my mom to go with her and get our nails done for her wedding.  Since she asked me to do it (fine, I'll put aside my personal issues) and she was paying (yup), I did it.  Why not, right?

First off, my sis called and got them to do my pedicure for 50% off since, you know, there's only half to do. The "foot" I have on my prosthesis is basically painted with French tips and looks gorgeous, so there was no need to touch it. Still, I was worried it was going to be awkward.  But the lady doing it was totally chill about the whole thing.  She worked hard to make both feet match, and I didn't feel wierd at all.

As she started in on my foot (after it had soaked for a while, she hit it with a scrubby and file and I don't-know-what-all), I thought to myself, "I would never want to do this, especially for hundreds of random strangers all day long."  My mom must have had the same thought, because she asked: "What made you want to have a job like this?  It's so gross."  The woman doing my foot responded, "85-90% of women hate their feet.  I like this because it's something I can do to make them like their body a little more." 


Wow.  We're made in the image of God (and we can debate all day long about what part of  us particularly is the "image" - that's not the point here).  In a recent magazine article I read, 97% of women "say something mean to their body at least once a day".  We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we hate ourselves - our hips, our waist, our hair, our feet, our skin.  But God made us, and God loves us.  If we hate our bodies, aren't we hating what God made?  Maybe this pedicure lady has it right - maybe taking on weird, gross tasks to help people love themselves a little more is really a worthwhile endeavor.  So many of us need it. 

In this day and age, maybe "washing one another's feet" is less about providing cleanliness and hospitality, and more about showing love and approval and contentedness.  Maybe "love your neighbor as yourself" can be "love your neighbor so that she can love herself."  Maybe - at least for some people - something as simple as a pedicure is less about self-indulgence and more about learning to love ourselves in a healthy way, learning to see ourselves as God sees us. 


And if so, what are some ways that we can "wash one another's feet" if we're not professional pedicurists and it's not Maundy Thursday?

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