Footwashing, Communion and the Kiss of Peace

The shape of three Christian rituals

Three rituals closely associated with early Christian churches’ practice of Lord’s supper are the bread and cup ceremony, the feet washing service, and the kiss of peace. What do these three have in common? In the first place, they all involve material in some way – people’s physical bodies, water and towels, wine and bread. Second, each one has particular words associated with it: ‘Take and eat’, ‘If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them’, ‘The peace of Christ be with you.’ Third, certain gestures accompany the words: breaking the bread and sharing the cup, kneeling in front of people to wash their feet, exchanging a solemn embrace.

And fourth, the material, the words, and the gestures are bound up with an inward will or disposition which can direct or change lives. This transformation operates in the realm of the imagination, the inner vision. As we take part in the bread-and-cup ritual we experience and pledge ourselves to a closer following of Christ. When we kneel with a towel and a basin we empty ourselves of pride and determine anew to walk the way of Christ’s selfless service. When we take part in a general exchange of peace greetings we grasp the potential beauty of a reconciled and reconciling community where the peace of Christ truly energizes and heals. We commit ourselves to this vision.

These rituals may be relatively empty for a community which performs them in a perfunctory way, perhaps through routine or a sense of duty. The overt patterns of using material, word and gestures are the easiest things to perpetuate. It’s that fourth one, the inward disposition, which is the key to filling up a dry ritual.

A South African friend described the electric moment of seeing a father and daughter, estranged for years, meeting and greeting at ‘the Peace’. Suddenly, the perfunctory words and desultory gesture of an arid communion Service revealed the Spirit’s power to transform, to make a broken relationship whole again.

I have heard people scorn the service of feet washing as culturally repellent, irrelevant, disgusting or meaningless. But when they actually got down on their knees before their brother or sister, and did so in the spirit of Christ himself, it took on a wholly new cast.

A racially mixed church desired to hold a feet washing service. But one African-American brother protested. ‘It is not possible for me, for cultural reasons, to do this. It is too difficult, because of the history of my people, to wash the feet of a white man. Please excuse me.’ Another man, of European descent, nodded his head, hearing and accepting the pain. He said, ‘That’s all right. But will you let me wash your feet anyway?’ Neither man was prepared for the powerful effect of this ritual, for the tears that flowed, or for their new inner grasp of the Christian vision of reconciliation across the barriers of human pain.

‘The servant is not greater than the master. I have set you an example. You are blessed if you do this’ (John 13: 16-17). If we allow Jesus’ words and example to set our inner will and imagination alight, a ‘disgusting and meaningless’, apparently impossible ritual will fill up with truth and meaning, right to the brim. The ritual might draw out repentance and confession. It might call for new recognitions or reconciliation. It might show us a new step of The Way of Jesus.

And so it is with the bread and cup ceremony, too. We can get through it in a few minutes’ time, with our minds a mile away. But the Apostle Paul might say to us, ‘It is not really to eat the Lord’s supper that you come together’ (I Corinthians 11:20). Sometimes we have not just an empty ritual but an abused ritual, one which demonstrates a contradictory significance. Careless of the inequities in the church, unmoved by a lack of love, inattentive to a fragmented congregational life, we can wring an empty ritual dry, and thoroughly abuse the table which our Lord has spread for us.

Four steps in filling up an empty ritual

How do we fill up an empty ritual? We begin with a proper connection with the realities of our community’s circumstances, its inner dynamics and its outer setting.

As we saw in the stories of eucharist in a prison and in a refugee camp, the respective settings made a great difference to the manner and content of the services. Most of us aren’t in either of those situations. But we are always in some situation! Ours might be a small inner city congregation, a retirement home, or perhaps a large and successful suburban church. Wherever we are, the ritual forms and words we use in communion services need to connect with the truth of our community’s life. This may have to do with questions such as excessive mobility and turnover in membership, issues of racism, fear of local crime, bereavements, sensitivity to justice concerns, the pressures of parental responsibility, or incentives toward material prosperity. One role of the leaders of a church is to perceive and name the primary arenas of faith struggle. Through this clear insight the eucharistic ritual can be planned and led. It might become dangerously relevant. Communion Services can become blindingly full of God’s challenging life.

Second, we take up the tradition that is handed down to us. The Christian eucharist has a strong outline structure as well as flexibility to serve us in whatever situation we find ourselves. We can use Scripture, silence, song, ancient words and improvised words. We can move around, use gestures that express what words cannot say. We can use the symbols of materiality: bread and wine, water, cross, offering plate. And we can go on to use other material symbols as well, to express our thanksgiving, puzzlement, or our anguish to God. It is important to create open spaces within the ritual. Evidence from early Christian worship shows that a number of people took part in eucharistic prayers. There was room for the Spirit. There was an interplay of forms with flexibility and freedom. Many denominations have narrowed the great tradition, and in so doing have induced amnesia and have stifled spiritual imagination. The Christian eucharist tradition is rich, and awaits our fuller and more creative appropriation.

A third step is to do what Father Meienberg did in choosing Ezekiel17, the vision of dry bones brought to life, as one of his Scriptures that day in the refugee camp. We need to find the passages that genuinely speak to the circumstances of our life together. Many churches use lectionaries with suggested readings for each Sunday. These often are surprisingly apt, but there is no law against substituting or adding further Scripture readings. It takes time, thought, prayer and imagination to work in a creative way within a tradition. But it is well worth spending time over the choice of Scriptures. In doing this we feed our religious imagination through the rich Biblical materials. Metaphors, visual symbols, parables, testimonies and hymns – all will spring into place. The raw materials, words and gestures of the Biblical tradition are all available for us. But we need to keep feeding our communion rituals with the nourishment of the Bible.

Finally, we enrich and fill up the ritual by the fourth movement, getting in touch with the inner will and imagination. We engage our deepest intentions and promises when we allow the great story of God to grasp us in new ways. Pre-eminently at the communion table we retell that story of God’s creating and redeeming and liberating love. With joy we join the thanksgiving song, and find our places within the people that Jesus calls to his table fellowship. This is the work of the Holy Spirit the one who continuously encourages, enlivens, and unites us together.

(An excerpt from Eleanor Kreider, Communion Shapes Character, Scottdale: Herald, 1997, pp158-60)