Bath night isn’t until Tuesday, so Monday night we elected that instead of giving her a bath we would just wash her feet. At first, I tried wiping them down with diaper wipes. This had no effect. Remember this the next time someone complains about stinky feet: foot funk has more staying power than feces. So when it became clear that sanitary wipes could not defeat the feet, I went and got a washcloth and rubbed in some of her bath gel. As we got her dressed for bed, I massaged her feet with the warm washcloth, rubbing the suds into her heels and between her toes. Then we carried her into the bathroom and rinsed them in the sink, again massaging them and rubbing the soap away. Then I patted them dry with a hand towel, daubing away the moisture, squeezing the towel around her soles and toes. This process had a calming effect on her, and she watched me with quiet interest as I wrapped each foot in the washcloth. “Wash feet,” she said softly.
My spouse, who was holding her while I performed this footwashing (any cosmetic or dressing procedure requires at least three, usually four, hands these days) noticed out loud what a sweet and gentle daddy I was being to wash the stink off her feet for her. It’s true, I can be a pretty sweet daddy at times. But what I was thinking of as I washed my little girl’s feet I was the story in the Gospel of John where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
As Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover meal just before Jesus was arrested and handed over to be crucified, John’s Gospel describes Jesus as using a basin or water and his own outer robe to clean the feet of each disciple. Simon Peter doesn’t understand and protests; at first, he seems to think that this task is beneath Jesus, but Jesus insists. Then Simon Peter begins to understand that there is some holy significance to this washing and insists that Jesus wash all of him. Poor Peter, never quite getting it. When Jesus has finished, he sits down at the table with them and says, “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 13:14-15 NRSV).
There is something powerfully intimate about washing another person’s feet. Truthfully, I don’t even wash my own feet that thoroughly. I rinse them off daily in the shower, but I don’t give them that kind of regular and specific attention, lathering them top and bottom, and deliberately drying them off. To give this kind of care and attention to another person’s feet feels a little intrusive and, honestly, dirty. Jokes about smelly feet proliferate because our feet are potentially the most usually dirty parts of our body. We walk on them everywhere; they touch the ground and everything that’s on the ground. Our hands get plenty dirty in the world, but we control the things we do or do not want to touch. But you can’t just stop walking on the ground, at least not for long. And washing one’s hands is much easier and convenient than washing one’s feet. We invented shoes and socks to protect our feet from all the various things we encounter on the ground, but we still consider dirty socks and shoes to be stinky and smelly because, well, feet are stinky and smelly. As I observed above, the stink of a foot lingers more than the stink of a dirty diaper. I suppose changing your child’s diaper is also an intimate act, but it’s expected and obvious and, we hope, something that the child will grow out of. Once you learn to use the toilet, you tend to keep your ass cleaner than you keep your feet.
So when is the last time you washed another person’s feet? What was that like for you? I suppose it was a sweet thing for me to do for my child; it’s an act of tenderness and care and intimacy and familiarity with another human being’s dirtiest extremity. Of course, I didn’t do it to show her how much I loved her; I did it because her feet stank. But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love her. Loving parents regularly engage in these kinds of acts of self-giving and care. Changing a diaper is also an act of tenderness, routine as it quickly becomes. So is picking food up off the floor. Or giving your child a bath, or putting her hair up, or holding her in the night when she won’t sleep, or not hitting her back when she bites you in anger, or letting her jump on your belly when you’re rough-housing, or sliding down the slide with her, or pushing her in a swing again, or rearranging your entire life to accommodate hers. I suppose that this kind of intimate, tender service is what being a parent is all about. It’s just what you sign up for when you have kids and decide that you’re going to be the kind of parent that is good to his child.
But there was something more to washing her feet this week. Maybe it was in her seeming reverence for this act that I stopped and connected it to the act of Jesus. Maybe it was how she stopped squirming and fussing when I began to suds up her ankles, or how she quietly repeated “Wash feet” as she watched me. I think every act of parenting is a holy act, an act of self-giving and love. But Jesus told his disciples that he did it not for his love of them, but as an example of what love should look like for each of them. We serve our children not simply because we love them, but because we want them to know what love looks like. I guess that’s ultimately how love works: it self-propagates and expands beyond its original creator’s initial intentions.
I washed my child’s feet because they were stinky and I love her and I don’t want her feet to stink. But even though she’s only two, she noticed all this and took it in. And one day, perhaps much sooner than I might think, she will offer her own act of selfless caring to someone else. I washed my child’s feet because I want to teach her what love does.