I have always been fascinated by church architecture. I remember when I was a little girl and our Sunday school teacher took us into the church and had us run around the space with one hand on the wall, tracing the shape of the church. When we finished she gathered us in the middle of the church where the two aisles crossed (what I later discovered was called the transcept) and asked us what shape we had just traced. It took us a moment to look around and almost at once the whole class realized the church was in the shape of a cross and shouted “cross” with joy and excitement.
It would be some time before I would intellectually understand how symbols, especially in church, convey meaning though I immediately began comparing my church to all my friends’ churches whenever I visited them. They weren’t in cruciform shapes and I thought that was somewhat sad for them. I began to notice other variations between my church and my friends’ churches and grew even more attached to the theology and worship of the Episcopal Church. I started noticing that the words we used were different, that we read volumes of scripture versus only a few lines, that our hymns were more challenging to sing. There was a sacredness I associated with worshipping in the Catholic and, later, the Episcopal Church that I didn’t experience in other protestant churches. The details mattered and the aspects of liturgy and worship—be it through word or action or object—were not only symbolic they communicated a depth of meaning beyond there simple outward appearance.
Overtime I became more enamored with the various aspects of church architecture and the objects of worship—how they conveyed meaning beyond mere symbolism. There was something ancient and yet relevant in the particulars of worship. I learned about a Roman architect, called Vitruvius, who believed the human form was perfectly proportional and he described it in such a way, that centuries later, Leonardo De Vinci would draw that man in a circle that we know today as the Vitruvian Man. Vitruvius thought the human form had something to say about buildings and there design. He understood a person’s belly button to be the center of our bodies and sketched cubes and circles in such a way as to capture the essence of that in Roman construction.
Christians quickly adopted the Roman Basilica, originally built for matters of state, as the appropriate shape for churches. Along with nave and transepts, they had an apse and narthex or profanora. The design was in the form of the human body lying prone—the nave and transepts resembled the body with arms stretched out in a cruciform manner. The apse was rounded and perfectly proportioned to encase the head. The feet rested in the profanora. To think about that in more symbolic terms: the head is the space in which the altar is situated; the nave is where the people, the body of Christ, sit with their arms outstretched into the transepts; and we enter through the narthex, the profanora, where the feet reside. And that seems to me almost the most symbolic of any feature of architecture we have in the church—we enter the building proper through the feet; through the profanora; through the profane.
The word profane originates from the Latin word pro meaning “outside” and fanum meaning “temple” which forms the word profanus meaning “outside the temple” and therefore, not sacred. That which is profane is not sacred—even in our modern understanding. To associate the feet with the profane and as the way in which we enter the temple, the church, has some significant theological consequences.
Feet are gross—they are important and valuable assets to our bodies and the work and recreation we pursue, but they get dirty and can smell bad. I once went barefoot for a week just to see what it might be like not to afford shoes—it was not fun. I’m a tender foot anyway, but my feet would get so black on the bottoms that I washed them on my back steps before I even walked into my house and they still didn’t come completely clean. Remember grocery store feet—ten times more disgusting. Our feet may not be worshipping false gods, but they are certainly impure, unclean in literal and even figurative ways.
I can’t imagine how dirty the feet of people in Jesus’s day would have been—dust and dirt outside the house and in, with maybe a leather soled thong strapped around your ankle. Servants normally did the job of washing a guest’s feet when they entered a home. There were social graces and customs and the cleaning of the visitor’s feet was a sign of hospitality and welcome though always performed by someone of lesser status than the host. So for the host of a dinner party to wash his guests’ feet was not only unthinkable, it ripped through the fabric of social custom and grace. And for anyone of higher social rank or status, say a teacher and his students, to have lowered themselves to such a level was not simply debasing but cause for a loss of respect and honor. And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does—he debases himself, not to lose the respect of his followers, but to enter into their hearts and gain their love.
I can’t imagine that moment was comfortable for any of them that night. Even though Peter is the only one to verbalize it, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet,” he can’t have been the only one thinking it. I wonder how long it took? How many painful, agonizing, disturbing seconds ticked off the clock until he was finished? Was there the little jokes and innuendos made that we make when we are uncomfortable? Snickering or at least nervous laughter? Or maybe just silence? How heavy did that silence become after your turn was over? When Jesus finished washing each of their feet, when he has made the profane clean, he returns to the table and explains to them what he has just done—how he has led by example and that his leadership has been grounded in humility, a servant leader.
We enter through the profane—that place outside the temple—to be made clean, to be made sacred. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb through our baptism and we return again and again to this place for that continual ritual of cleansing—our souls, like the soles of our feet, get dirty—we get grocery store souls just by living out in the world and they need to be cleaned.
We offer a ritual symbol for that as well—in ancient days and even in some medieval and modern churches still—the baptismal font is often found in the Narthex or near an entrance to the church. The symbolism reflects the sense of the architecture as we enter from the profane to the sacred, we participate in the ritualistic observance of dipping our fingers in the blessed water of baptism and making the sign of the cross: a cleansing ritual to reflect our surroundings, the deep inherent meaning of our space given to us since the days of the early church.
We enter into Christ’s love through his acts of humility because he first loves us. And we are taught that in that ritual of purification of both kinds of souls, we, too, are called to practice that same humility in our relationships with friend and family, stranger and foe. We enter into Christ’s church to take our place as part of the body and here, too, we are called to act in ways of humility and servant leadership.
Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; John 13:1-7, 31b-35
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Thursday, April 18, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer