Comment Comment and Features

Why foot-washing still shocks us

Pope Francis dries the foot of a toddler at Rebibbia Prison in Rome (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, Pool)

Foot-washing has attracted more attention among Catholics recently than at any time in the past 1,500 years. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has emphasised the practice both in his actions and, lately, in his writing. He attracted global media attention when, on his first Holy Thursday as pope, he washed the feet of men and women at a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Rome. Then at the beginning of this year he issued new rules governing the foot-washing rite, insisting that it should not be restricted to men.

The Pope’s guidance will be put into effect around the world for the first time next week. It is therefore a good time to take stock of the practice, its origins and background, and to reflect on what is has to offer us today as disciples.

If you lived in the hot, dusty world of sandals before asphalt roads, when animals provided the only motive power other than your own feet, there would be nothing so welcoming after even a short journey than a chance to wash your feet. Given that such a journey is always hard on the legs and back, an even better welcome would be if you could sit down and have someone wash your feet for you.

The literature of antiquity abounds with references to foot-washing, but it is enough to mention two examples. In Genesis 18 we have the story of the wondrous visit of the Lord, in the form of three men, to Abraham at Mamre. The first sign of welcome is that Abraham arranges for the visitors’ feet to be washed. The other example is from the Rule of St Benedict on the welcome to be shown to guests. When travellers arrive at Benedictine monasteries they are to be given water to wash their hands, and the abbot and some of the community are to wash the guests’ feet.

Another feature of ancient foot-washing is easy for us to miss: washing another’s feet was seen as the lowest job in the household. It was the lowliest female slave’s task: the chore everyone wanted to avoid. Only when we know how degrading the duty of foot-washing was can we understand how shocking Jesus’s action was and why St Peter at first objected to it.

That Jesus chose to wash the disciples’ feet is so out of harmony with the cultures of the early churches that when we read about it in John’s Gospel (13:3-17) we can be confident it is authentic. Clearly, his action seemed weird to all who heard of it: they were following him as their Lord and Teacher (13:13) and so expected him to take the commanding place in any gathering.

The disciples saw themselves as inferior to him and they were to be at his feet. Likewise, in the churches where this process was being carried out as a distinctive action of Christians, everyone had social expectations of how they should relate to each other. Calling one another “sister” and “brother” was OK, but the idea that a master or mistress would wash the feet of someone who was their slave was simply too much. Many tensions were created in the churches when people who were in master-slave relationships also had to cope with the idea that they were equal children of God as Christians. Pope Francis has made this point by washing feet at a young offenders’ institute, a care home, a prison, and – this year – a migrant centre.

John makes the teaching of Jesus very plain: the master has washed the disciples’ feet to show them the relationships that should exist between them around the Christian table: they should all be willing to wash each other’s feet. Being willing to do this was to act as a boundary to show commitment to the Reign of God that began with Jesus.

But the problem of social status – especially in highly stratified societies – dogged Christianity. The idea of brotherly love and the family of God was great, but a command – that’s what it is in John 14:14 – to actually break all the boundaries of caste, class and legal status had to be solved by a workaround. So foot-washing became a regular weekly event in the life of monks, but otherwise was made a very infrequent ritual. In some Eastern churches it became an annual event. In the Western churches it was also performed each year but only in cathedrals. Not surprisingly, some at the time of the Reformation saw this as another commandment that had been forgotten and they reintroduced it, only to find it so inconvenient that it was sidelined again within decades.

Even in cathedrals the focus was subtly changed to make it more palatable and less likely to challenge accepted social conventions. Commonly, it was seen as having little to say to the Church about its nature and became a matter of miming the Last Supper – a lovely tableau. The scene was that of 12 men playing the Apostles and the bishop playing the role of Jesus.

In other cities, such as Rome, it was done after the Eucharist to 12 poor men so that it became a display of the bishop’s generosity. The way the bishop was assisted in the task showed that he was humble, but he was still the master.

In other places the distasteful act of foot-washing was replaced with a gift of money – still seen in the ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II distributing the Maundy Money – so that it was no longer about human relationships but simply a variant of care for the needy. It was only with the new Holy Week liturgy of 1956 that foot-washing was made a standard, if optional, part of the Roman Rite. But there had been so little reflection on this practice that most places simply ignored it – as is the way with anything optional. Those places that did hold it found it awkward and embarrassing (which it is and which is why it can be such a valuable exercise for a community). Moreover, when asked to explain it, many opted for the “default setting” and interpreted it by analogy with the Christmas crib: it was just adding detail to a mime of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening. The notion that it was an explicit action “given for [our] example” (John 13:14) about how we were to relate to one another was lost from sight.

New research on John’s Gospel, the practices of the early churches and a deeper awareness of how liturgy forms a community of disciples have led to a rediscovery of foot-washing. It is beginning to be seen as far more important than a piece of theatre or a token of “big people” being nice to “little people”. This renewed appreciation of the Gospel has now been given explicit shape in the liturgy. Foot-washing is to be seen as an action that involves and speaks to the whole People of God. The group whose feet are washed should represent the whole rich variety of the Church: women and men, young and old, healthy and sick, clergy, nuns and laity. We are all to learn the vision of mutual service, care and mercy that is at the core of who we are called to become.

Thomas O’Loughlin is the author of Washing Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today (Liturgical Press)

This article first appeared in the March 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here