The Rev. H. Austin Cooper left his place at the head of the Pleasant View Church of the Brethren congregation, slipped off his somber blue suit coat and tied a long white apron around his waist.
It was the signal to begin the traditional feet-washing rite on Thursday night in preparation for the coming of Easter. The Gospel of John tells how Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples.
Quietly and reverently, the entire congregation here - for modesty's sake with the men on one side of the aisle and the women, each wearing her little white net prayer cap, on the other - shucked off their shoes and stockings.
While the congregation began singing "Just As I Am," small galvanized tin tubs half-filled with warm water appeared at the end of each sturdy oak pew throughout the neat little country church. Then, as their pastor had done, the first person in each pew tied on a long white apron, knelt and washed and dried the feet of the person next to him or her. When finished, both stood barefoot, exchanged hugs, a warm kiss and a "God Bless You."
The person whose feet had just been cleansed assumed the apron, the tub was scooted to the next person in the pew and the process continued until all had washed and had been washed.
"Jesus did this, this feet-washing, as an act of humility with his disciples," Cooper told his flock as the men and women dressed. "We Brethren, being literalists, accept this and do it, too."
In the Gospel account, Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet took place at the conclusion of the Last Supper. Every Christian Church tood re-enacts, in one form or another, Jesus' last supper with his disciples, but few regularly practice foot-washing.
The Church of the Brethren, a tiny pacifist denomination of fewer than 180,000 members throughout the nation, is the exception. The feet-washing ceremony is part of what the Brethren call the "Love Feast," which begins with a prayer service of "soul searching" and "self-examination," includes a modest meal, and concludes with a service of holy communion.
Pleasant View Church, set on a knoll in the western Maryland foothills with a splendid vista of neatly kept farms and forests, celebrated its 200th anniversary last August 15. Cooper, who has served the 200-member church since 1970, is not unmindful of long tradition in which he stands.
"Our service tonight is almost identical with the one used by John Schleifer and Daniel Arnold (the first elder and pastor) in 1776," he told the congregation at the beginning of Thursday night's service.
The meal served in mid-service, Cooper explained, is "a feast of love, a feast of friendship among the brethren." In the early church that sprang up after Christ's death, he continued, Christians gathered together after the worship service and "each family brought a little food" so that together they could feast.
After hymns and prayers, the hymn racks on the backs of the pews were let down to form little shelves and the deacons brought from the adjoining room trays of sandwiches - "for convenience," Cooper explained - and bowls of broth with chunks of bread broken in them, representing the "sop" of the Biblical Last Supper.
The food was eaten in an atmosphere of prayer and total silence - "in deep fellowship," as the mimeographed order service directed.
There were no small children among the 80 or so persons present for the two-hour service - only "believers" who had professed their faith and were thus entitled to take part in the next, most solemn part of the love feast, holy communion.
Communion bread long sticks of cracker-like substance - was distributed. Each communicant broke off a piece and gave it to his neighbor before handing on the long piece. The wine - plum juice actually, for the temperate Brethren - was passed in tiny individual glasses.
"In some denominations they believe that the wine and the bread are actually transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ." Cooper observed after he had pronounced the words of institution, terming the communion element "in remembrance" of Christ.
"Who is to argue with those who believe that?" the country preacher said, dismissing one of the major theological differences that has divided Christians for centuries. "Christ is food," he continued. "He is spiritual food."
Cooper offered a final prayer of thanksgiving to God "Who hast dramatized to us together tonight the whole drama of brotherhood and servanthood" and observed that "the eating of food together reunites us with the whole family of God."
The congregation of the Pleasant View Church of the Brethren was then already for Easter.