Sermon on the Street: Holy Rituals Take New Life

Fr Eric washing feet at Andre House

As promised, today after a slight delay due to our Ordination Week coverage we bring you Fr. Eric Schimmel’s monthly blog from André House: Sermon on the Street. It is definitely worth the wait, as he puts our celebration of Easter Triduum, and thus our whole discipleship, in a powerful new light for us. Don’t miss this post!

Holy week obviously holds a place of preeminence in the Church’s liturgical year. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper and other liturgies of the Triduum are full of powerful rituals such as washing feet Holy Thursday, venerating the cross Good Friday, and baptisms at the Easter Vigil. In most places these rituals are celebrated with reverence and beauty. We at André House also celebrate these most sacred days. However, our celebrations do not have the same ambiance often found in a parish setting. In parishes we fittingly try to match the beauty of the ritual and symbol by providing an appropriately reverent and well decorated setting. That can’t be said at André House.

As in a parish, on Holy Thursday we wash feet. In my experience in parishes and elsewhere, those coming to get their feet washed on Holy Thursday often come with a self-consciousness that they will have their feet washed in front of many – and therefore come with pre-scrubbed toes. Although we wash feet during a Mass later in the evening after dinner, we also offer to wash the feet of any guest who comes through our soupline for dinner. I assure you that our guests do NOT come with pre-scrubbed feet.

Feet washing at Andre House

The experience of foot washing in a ministry with people who are homeless cannot be described as sterile. It also brings different reactions and comments from both those getting their feet washed and those doing the washing. Almost every year we have the powerful experience of role reversal where a guest who just had his/her feet washed asks to wash the feet of the person who just washed his/her feet. That mutual exchange of humble service can bring tears to the eyes.

Most often, our guests do not know that we will wash feet until about 10 minutes before we open to serve dinner. That is when I go out to announce to our guests waiting for us to open for dinner that it is Holy Thursday, the night in which Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. As I did so this year, our guests were respectfully attentive. When I mentioned that we would therefore offer to wash the feet of anyone who wanted – offering foot powder or lotion as well as a free pair of socks – several responded incredulously. Quite a few commented about how smelly their feet were (sometimes with descriptive adjectives), and that no one should be subjected to them.

During the dinner, I worked middle gate, which means that I got to call the guests in by rows of benches to come in and eat, and to collect their meal tickets. It also meant that I weaved through the five foot-washing stations where André House staff, volunteers, and some youth on retreat were washing feet of the guests. Guests who chose not to get their feet washed were surprised that my announcement was serious. Some commented as they passed by about remembering church services with a foot washing ceremony. A couple commented to each other that they didn’t get their feet washed because they did not want to surprise the washer with the ankle monitor they wear.

Knowing that I would celebrate Mass later that night with foot washing, I thought to myself about the disciples’ feet. They did not come to the dinner that night in Jerusalem knowing that it was going to be the Last Supper. They definitely did not expect Jesus to wash their feet. I am sure their feet were a bit ripe, as were the feet of some of our guests. Most of all I thought about who Jesus spent the majority of his time with. How often did people question him for eating with sinners? Of all people to get their feet washed, I felt like our guests deserve to have this chance to feel the Lord’s love. After all, I feel like they have “washed my feet” many times over as they watch out for me and the rest of the staff and volunteers at André House. May God bless the 50 who had their feet washed that night – and the others who for one reason or another felt like they could not participate.

Stations of the Cross outside Andre House gate

The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday was followed by the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. We walk our stations downtown, starting at the State Capitol building and stopping at the courthouse as well as at agencies around our neighborhood where or guests live. I find it particularly powerful walking these stations while surrounded by people who are obviously carrying heavy crosses. Along the way I meditated on one person who was sitting on the sidewalk with all of her belongings around her in 3 small bags. The tenth station, Jesus is stripped, came powerfully to mind. How many of our guests have been stripped of so many things – relationships as people turn their back on them, possessions that they still need to guard closely for fear that what little they have left will be stolen or thrown away. Many try to take away their dignity with judgmental looks, stereotypes, comments or cold shoulders just because they are homeless. Jesus came to us to bear our sins and to save us. He entered into the pain and death that sin inflicts and humbled Himself. Jesus faced similar indignities to help us to see that He loves us all. He carries our crosses with us.

As we now continue in the Easter season, I pray that as we can say “Alleluia, He is Risen,” that our guests and all people who may feel downtrodden can also have a taste of the resurrection. May the joy and hope that many of our guests have and maintain – experiences of resurrection that lifts me up – be theirs always, and be contagious to others. And may we who do not carry the same heavy burdens help to bring Christ’s light to our friends, especially to those who need it most. Happy Easter! He is Risen, Alleluia!

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