Ye Are Not All Clean

The prison choir was asked to sing at the Maundy Thursday service. I’d never been to one. It would be interesting. There would be foot-washing.

I grew up Baptist. We didn’t do foot-washing. I figured it would be like the Mennonite service I attended once. We paired off and washed each others’ feet. A little weird in prison maybe, but I was cool with it. I made sure to wash my feet first and put on clean socks before I went to the chapel.

Attendance was slim.  There were six or seven other guys besides the half-dozen of us in the choir.  We sat scattered over a couple dozen stackable plastic chairs. One chair stood alone at the front with a basin and towel beside it.

The Catholic chaplain, Mike, walked to the front in his white deacon’s vestments. He had a certain holy aloofness that made him hard to warm up to. When delivering the liturgy, he sounded sanctimonious. He was a stickler for the rules.

“Almighty Father,” Mike intoned, gazing toward the ceiling. Glancing down at the prayer book, he continued, “whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood…”

I looked around at the other prisoners and decided whose feet I wouldn’t mind washing if I got to choose. I knew most of them and why they were here - murder, rape, assault, child molestation. We were a sorry group of disciples.

Some of these guys were cradle Catholics. Some had found Jesus in prison. But, in mid-life, I found myself in a dark wood. The straight way was lost. Just thinking about it now brings back the old anxiety. My church kicked me out a week after my trial while I was in a maximum security cell at the Strafford County Jail awaiting sentencing. I had betrayed their trust. It’s bad enough when a respected church member is caught in sexual sin...but sexual sin with a minor? My pastor advised my church friends not to have anything more to do with me. One of the elders remarked I should be grateful for a long prison sentence. According to God’s Law, the penalty for my particular sin was death. He showed me the verse in Leviticus.

Over the first few years in prison, my prayers had dwindled to a desperate “God, help me!”  I still went to weekly chapel services, but they had become a mental and emotional wrestling match. I came away exhausted.

Mike was reading the gospel. “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, ‘Ye are not all clean.’”

Once you’ve become a betrayer, it doesn’t matter how far you throw those pieces of silver, the Judas-shame sticks like glue. You can't wash it off.

“Woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed. It were better for him, if that man had not been born.”  

I thought of the other “it were better” saying of Jesus. “Whoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Mike continued the reading, “Jesus began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”

I wondered what Jesus said when he got to Judas.  Did he whisper, “it were better if you had never been born”?  Who wouldn’t sink into despair at those words? Just how deep is the depth of the sea?

Mike was finishing the reading. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done to you.”

He took off his stole and knelt in front of the solitary chair. He invited us to come forward. Silently, one by one he washed our feet - murderers, rapists, child molesters. 

I remembered from somewhere that “maundy” comes from mandatum, the first word in the Latin phrase, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you."

“Observed more in the breach,” I thought, “but undeniably radical when obeyed.”