Tonight I went to a Maundy Thursday service at my church. This day commemorates the Last Supper, when Jesus broke bread with his disciples and washed their feet in a final act of service before his death. I have gone to a Maundy Thursday potluck before, where I ate church food and talked to nice people and then went home.
Tonight was different. There was a more formal order of service. I am a deacon at my church, and deacons tend to be thought of as the hands and feet of the church. We stock pews, we visit the sick, we make sure there are adequate coffee supplies. And we can serve at Maundy Thursday.
Tonight we heard readings from scriptures about the Last Supper, and we sang songs. In various parts of the service, I got up from my table and got us bread and juice for communion, and I went to fetch us soup. It felt companionable and intimate to serve my tablemates. I enjoyed doing so. I sat in a small group, and felt like I had time to really talk with them during the dinner. I don’t get to enjoy adult dinner conversation very often.
The music in this service was different than usual. It was accompanied only by a piano and a guitar, and the song leaders were not overly loud. I could clearly hear the voices of the people at my table. It felt oddly intimate to both sing songs together that we sang well, and struggle through songs together that we didn’t know well and wholly be able to hear each other.
Toward the end, after we shared supper, I and the other servers went to fetch a warm washcloth. I washed the hands of the woman sitting next to me. I felt shy when I arrived at the table to do this task. I felt like I didn’t know how to do it. And yet, as I washed her hands, I found myself washing them carefully, as if they were…the hands of a child. I realized I was carefully washing down each finger and between her fingers, and working my way over her palms and wrists.
She went on to wash the hands of the person to her left. I watched as each person washed the hands of the person to their left, and noticed what their hands looked like. Eventually it came back to me, and I had a moment of wondering if the person next to me would wash my hands, since I was just the server, the initiator. He did not forget me and he washed my hands. Throughout, I felt a sense of intimacy. When we were all done, I felt that we had all been drawn together, serving one another, taking care of one other.
There is a lot of touch involved when you wash someone’s hands. When you don’t know the person as well, you are aware of the intimacy and vulnerability of the gesture. You see what their hands look like. You hold their wrists and try to be careful with your touch.
When I washed my companion’s hands, I knew exactly what to do. Of course I did; I wash my children’s hands constantly. I hold their wrists, their fingers, and work out the dirt that is so stubbornly between their fingers. Often they squirm, eager to escape. And, like those of my companions at the table and in the church hall, their hands are each very different. And, like my children, some of my companions probably squirmed under the slightly uncomfortable feeling of intimacy.
Selah’s hands are brown, delicate, and growing larger. Her nails are not like mine; they are somewhat flatter and rounder. She has lived out her childhood through her hands. She has always been an artist and someone who likes to make projects or patterns out of very small objects more than she likes to race around. I don’t wash her hands very much any more, because she can do it herself. I didn’t realize this. It makes me want to wash her hands for her, to grasp onto that fleeting childhood.
Asher’s hands are small, whiter, slender, and embellished with slightly flattened fingernails as well, usually fingernails entirely full of dirt. These are digging hands. They spend a lot of time gripping small metal cars. They do not like to be held in parking lots. They are independent hands.
Noah’s fingers, which I wash most frequently, are still baby hands. The fingers are so plump, and each one has a dimple. His fingernails are baby nails. He likes to hold hands when I can’t hold him. He likes to bury his hands when he nuzzles into me. I wash these hands with a cloth most days we are together, much as I did the woman’s hands at my table tonight.
I use warm cloths to wash their faces in the bath; I use them to wipe food from their chins. I wash their hair with gentle soap that smells of nostalgia and babyhood. I clean the most intimate areas of my children in varying capacity; again, that kind of nurture diminishes as they age. There will come a day when I do not see their bodies and I do not wash their hands.
What if every time I bathed their bodies, washed their hands, prepared and served their food, I did so with such reverence and with the reminder that that is the stuff that intimacy is made of? Their bodies started as part of me, and gradually grow further away. But if I carefully wash their fingers often enough, even when they don’t need me to, with the same careful, loving touch, it may not start feeling vulnerable or allow that nonstop intimacy to…stop.
Tonight, when someone washed my hands, I felt cleansed, soothed, and connected, not only with that one person but with each person at my table. We slowed down and entered each other’s space and listened to each other’s voices.