On Saturday night, I was invited to iftar with a group from the Islamic Association of North Texas in Richardson.
I was also invited, for the first time, to participate in wudu, the Islamic practice of ablution, or washing one’s hands and feet before entering the prayer room.
Larry beckoned me to sit beside him on a stool in front of a faucet, and then walked me through the process. He showed me how to wash my hands, arms up to the elbow, mouth, face, ears, and feet.
This practice is based on a command from the Quran, which reads: “O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles.” (Sura 5.6)
As he was demonstrating the proper way to wash, Larry, who is a convert to Islam from Christianity, chuckled and said, “It’s like a mini-baptism.”
I responded, “Yes, but we’re using a lot more water than we normally use in baptism!”
The practice of ablution is related to the concept of taking off one’s shoes, because it has to do with showing respect in a sacred space. But it goes deeper – it connotes the importance of coming before God with clean, pure hands, feet, and heart.
The prophet Mohammed is reported to have said, “Cleanliness is half of faith,” which sounds remarkably similar to the saying that Methodism’s founder, John Wesley coined: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
All forms of ablution are essentially symbolic – the washing of one’s body is meant to represent the cleansing of one’s heart and soul. Just because you go to prayer with sparkling clean hands doesn’t mean your heart is also pure. It’s meant instead to be a reminder before prayer to lay aside those things which might be a hindrance to the contemplation of God. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously put it, “purity of heart is to will one thing,” meaning that purity is really about focus, single-mindedness.
The religious pursuit of purity is not so much about being rid of dirt and sin, as it is about the embrace of God alone. In order to receive God’s merciful embrace, we must open our fists, dropping those things which we were clinging to, and reaching out for the eternal One. Purity is the crystalline, razor-sharp intention to let God, and God alone, fill one’s heart, mind, and soul.
As I washed my hands, face, and feet, I imagined that I was doing exactly this. As the drops of water rolled off my face, I pictured my preoccupations and prejudices rolling off my soul. As the stream of water splashed off my toes, I imagined the dust of the day’s petty concerns and worries flow down the drain.
When I entered the prayer room with Larry, I willed myself to will one thing – God’s own will. I prayed that God’s will would be done on the earth, but especially in my life.
Yes, it was a sort of mini-baptism. The symbolic meaning of baptism for Christians is that one’s sins are washed away, and that we are raised out of the water to new life. It’s meant as an initiation ritual primarily, and so we celebrate baptism as a one-time event only.
However, upon reflection, I am reminded that are precedents for mini-baptisms, or ablution, in Scripture and Christian tradition, especially in the surprising story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
In John 13, as the disciples gather for a meal, Jesus shocks the group by bending down to wash their feet for them. This was a task normally reserved for a servant, or another person of low status. But Jesus performed the rite himself.
When he was finished, he said, “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)
In this story, Jesus affirms the importance of purity and cleanliness before God, but then adds a surprising twist by performing the ablution himself for the disciples. This is an act of supreme sacrifice, of laying one’s own comfort and convenience aside for the other.
Then it struck me – to serve others is to do God’s will. The two are intimately related.
When we purify our hearts, when we pledge ourselves to the pursuit of God’s will, then we find ourselves being directed to serve others, to practice radical compassion, to empty ourselves for the good of God’s children.
May our mini-baptisms consistently direct us to serve others in God’s name.