To read my previous posts on the Casa, just click on my name above. This is an appropriate time--during these five weeks of Easter--to think back on our experience of the liturgies of Holy Week. Historically, this is the season when new Christians, just baptized and confirmed, reflect on the mysteries of faith instructed by their bishop or pastor; it’s called mystagogy. Where were you during Holy Week? What were the services like in your parish those last three days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday of the Easter Vigil? What were you like as a worshiper? I’m asking myself these questions. Since I was on retreat at the Casa, where all the worship took place outdoors, that basic departure from the norm, I am a member of a large urban church with a formal, "high" liturgy indoors, concentrated my attention of itself. Then, because the retreat directors focused on Scripture background (the first part of the week) and the theology and liturgy of the Triduum (the end of the week), what I heard explicated in two sessions each day set me up for a deeper experience. It was like having a personal guide through Paris, someone to point out not only the most important not-to-miss things, but to give you the background you need to enjoy them more fully. More than that, the environment and the liturgies themselves added much. At Palm Court, for example, an expansive area under the stars where the Casa puts on its grand but rather informal liturgies, the seats are arranged on both sides of a wide, much decorated aisle. The Scripture reading typically takes place at one end of the aisle; the presiding priest sits at the other end, with a large choir and instruments behind him. Processions and movements take place along this central roadway. The congregation can not only see it----but they see each other as well. On Holy Thursday, the procession included the bringing in of the tall stacks of towels, pitchers of water and basins. And while the entire liturgy was beautiful, the foot washing was the memorable thing. Everyone in the congregation was invited to participate, 1,000 people. Specifically, we were asked to wash the feet of the person behind us. As people approached the benches set up at different stations for the foot washing, people broke off in twos. "Are you with anyone?" the woman ahead of me asked. "No," I said. So we washed each other’s feet. It is hard to describe what made the action so affecting. Partly it was because we were strangers. Here was another Christian about the same age as I. Since I have always loved this ritual, but have never either had my feet washed nor washed anyone else’s feet at this Triduum liturgy, I wanted to wash this woman’s feet reverently in a way that would convey meaning to her. I caught myself singing the congregational song in a very full voice as I took off both her shoes; I prayed that song over her as my intention. When I poured the water from the pitcher into the basin, I was elated to find it WARM. It was a cold night. In springtime it gets cold in the desert the minute the sun goes down. Yet this water was warm (perhaps it had been warmed for the occasion). Rather than produce a chill, a minor assault on one’s neighbor, this was comfort, an act of sensual kindness. And since there was no real dirt to soil any feet--the court is grassy--I wondered at what I was washing away for her. I thought this and recalled the words of Jesus to acknowledge what he had done and to follow his example. That night as I watched the lines of people bend and pour and bare their toes to one another, touching and tending and sometimes hugging afterward, I thought how appropriate this rite would be for married couples, perhaps for weddings and anniversaries, since spouses must constantly wash each other’s feet. And it fits whole families, too, since parents tend to their children bodily (and older siblings tend younger ones), apply healing arts like extracting splinters, washing scrapes, binding sprains and massaging stiff muscles; they also forgive each other’s sins, sometimes daily. In the foot washing, what binds us first is our humanity, our mutual need to be cleanse and tended and forgiven, and our need to cleanse, tend, and forgive. What binds us, too, is our experience as having received such services, such healing touches from Christ himself, through the church and its sacraments. Furthermore, what binds us is our need to express that Christ-given experience ritually at least once each year, as we remember as Christians what Jesus has done for us and turn collectively to follow his example. Never before had I experienced 1,000 people washing one another’s feet. When people hear of it, they say, "Must take a long time." Not really, though. It doesn’t take much longer than receiving Communion or giving a cup of water to a thirsty stranger--which Jesus also commands us to do. To top off our experience, after the last prayer, we were invited to process to a ramada where the Eucharist would be placed for veneration. This was led by several ushers carrying candles under glass, hoisted on very tall curved poles. The musicians set the tone with a quiet chant. As we filed out into the desert, our path was lit on both sides by thousands of votive candles in glass holders (not the paper bag luminaria of Christmas). It was magical: the night, the chill, the movement, the people carrying sleeping infants or holding the hands of excited children caught up in the sparkles and the melody and the mood. It was quiet, muted, somber, yet joyful all the same. And people lingered, even though there were only a few seats for the crowd. People prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, went up to it and knelt, brought their elderly and their young with them, and after a while, the group gradually thinned out--no one talking or destroying the mood. Even in the dark, one could see several people walking on the labyrinth, demarcated by candlelight. The wood beams of the ramada itself had been laced with white cloth, a prelude to the white garment Christians take on at baptism, and the color of this season. I stayed long, almost to the very end, before I went back to my room. Who had set this all up? I wondered. So much preparation had gone into everything--all those towels, that warm water, the ushers leading us so deftly through our movements? How important these days are--such care taken with every detail--just the way we do at a wedding, before a newborn comes home, at major birthdays, and at other festivals of our lives. Next installment: Good Friday (the passion play and veneration of the cross) and the Easter Vigil. Karen Sue Smith
Holy Thursday at 'The Casa'