ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

I Have Given You an Example

The washing of feet has evolved from a menial task to a symbolic, holy gesture.

The Gospel according to John tells us that during the last meal Jesus shared with His Apostles, He did something that amazed them. Taking upon Himself a role assigned only to women, children, and gentile slaves, He washed their feet.

Breaking sharply with the custom of the times, early Christians widely followed Jesus’ example. Though not as well known in our time, footwashing was practiced extensively in the early Church. It is still part of the Holy Week liturgy of many Catholics, both East and West, and of Orthodox Christians.

Footwashing is also a regular part of the worship of over 100 Protestant denominations of the United States. Most of these are small groups – Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Sabbatarian – but footwashing is now enjoying a revival among mainline denominations and charismatic Catholics.

Why are so many people kneeling before the washbasin as Jesus did? Some clues can be found in the history of footwashing, which reveals its rich symbolic meaning.

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, connected the call to wash feet with serving the poor and imprisoned. By washing the feet of the needy and the forgotten, Christians imitated Jesus in assuming the role of the powerless.

A similar reversal of roles – those with power or privilege serving the humble – can be seen today in the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. Since children, the least powerful members of society, were frequently compelled to wash feet, Armenian and Greek priests and bishops often wash the feet of twelve children.

In the Coptic Church, footwashing became a part of the Holy Thursday Mass, where it was linked to the Hebrews’ crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. In many Christian churches, footwashing is now a regular part of the Holy Thursday service. Celebrants often symbolize their servant role by removing their vestments before they wash the feet of the faithful.

For some early advocates of footwashing, including the theologian Origen of Alexandria and the Eastern Father St. Athanasius, Christian sympathy for the poor meant refusing to war against them. Most of the Brethren, Mennonite, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Sabbath – keeping Protestant denominations in the United States that observe the washing of the feet also oppose participation in combat.

The importance of footwashing is also demonstrated by its inclusion in adult baptismal ceremonies in the early Church. In Europe and North Africa, adult baptism by immersion was common for many centuries. The washing of the new Christian’s feet, which occurred between immersion and First Communion, symbolized the joining of a new community marked by personal transformation and radical equality.

In Christian churches where footwashing takes place within the celebration of a common meal, it also symbolizes the table-fellowship Jesus creates among His followers. Their union in Christ breaks down the divisions of status that are assigned to them elsewhere in society.

For centuries both in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western Church, the washing of the feet has been performed by those of highest authority. Athanasius wanted the reversal of roles and the celebration of equality in Christ to be carried over into daily life; he urged bishops to eat often with their priests, serving them at table and washing their feet.

The monastic movement embraced footwashing as a symbol of the fellowship of the religious with each other and with the poor. It was an important part of early Egyptian monasticism and was urged by three leading monastic figures in the West: Benedict, Caesarius, and Cassian.

St. Benedict’s Rule calls for washing the feet of all guests. Cassian reported that the monks of Palestine, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, and “all the East” counted it an honor to be able to wash each other’s feet. The task which had once been considered too degrading to inflict on a slave who shared one’s faith was now regarded as a privilege.

Caesarius wrote that it was particularly important to honor the poor in this manner. In monasteries both East and West, poor travelers had their feet washed as a sign of welcome to a community that gave them food, lodging, and sometimes money. At Cluny, the Abbot washed the feet of poor wayfarers every Sunday and gave them alms. On Maundy Thursday, every monk washed the feet of a poor person and gave him his own shoes.

These customs continued for centuries among Benedictines, Cistercians, Jesuits, and other orders, and were often emulated by kings and emperors. It is said that King Robert II of France, who lived from 971 to 1031, took in 300 poor guests in a single day, fed them, washed their feet himself, and gave two pieces of silver to each.

The history of footwashing in the monasteries bears witness to another Christian transformation of roles. Women, who had been compelled to wash feet as a consequence of their lowly status, were able to assume greater leadership in monasteries than anywhere else in the Church or society of the late Patristic era. Monks who had been freeborn men, on the other hand, would not have been expected to wash feet, yet in the monasteries they did so voluntarily.

Part of the significance of footwashing lies in its basic gesture: touching the feet of another, as Jesus touched the feet of His Apostles. St. John says that Jesus “had always loved His own in this world” (Jn. 13:1), and in the act of washing their feet He gave His love dramatic form. Even our feet, looked down upon as the humblest part of our anatomy, are encompassed in Jesus’ love, and He tells us, “You also must do as I have done for you.”

In his commentary on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine, the great bishop of North Africa, urges Christians to practice mutual forgiveness as they meet at the basin.

“We know that of this also we were admonished,” Augustine wrote, “…that we should confess our faults to one another, and pray for one another.” The desire for reconciliation is so strong that Christians seem instinctively to seek out those from whom they have been estranged, wanting to wash their feet and demonstrate their acceptance.

One of Bernini’s panels in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome captures the essence of the loving touch: it depicts Jesus tenderly kissing the foot of Peter, who had initially refused to let the Master wash his feet.

Many liturgists today are seeking to restore gesture and movement to worship, giving Western Christians the chance once again to act out the Good News rather than simply hear it. Eastern Christians never lost the tradition of dramatic movement in the liturgy, and they have much to teach Western Christians about making worship more physical and more expressive.

We might begin by adding to our worship the washing of feet, a gesture which celebrates our unity in Christ, the equality of all Christians, the reconciliation we seek, and the loving touch we need.

Thomas W. Goodhue, a United Methodist minister, teaches at the Riverside Church Weekday School in New York City. He has written widely about the practice of footwashing.

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