Footwashing

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Footwashing

On Maundy Thursday some churches and religious institutions practice an old ceremony associated with the day known as footwashing. In this ceremony a member of the clergy washes the feet of people in the community or congregation. In some churches, for example, the priest bathes the feet of twelve boys or men. Seated in a half circle around the priest, the boys and men represent Jesus' twelve apostles. In other Christian denominations clergy members wash the feet of all who wish to participate in the ceremony. This ritual developed sometime around the seventh century as a means of commemorating the example Jesus set for his disciples at the Last Supper (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday).

Origins of the Ceremony

The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper, the last meal that Jesus ate with his followers before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion (John 13:4-9; for more on cruci- fixion, see Cross). This gesture so surprised the disciple named Peter that he at first refused to let Jesus do it. The idea of having someone wash his feet was not new to Peter, since in those days it was customary for people to have their feet washed when they entered a home so as not to bring the dust and dirt of the street into the house with them. But this task was usually performed by someone of low status. In humble families the women of the house performed this task for guests. Slave-owning families assigned the task of washing family members' and guests' feet to a slave. Since footwashing was considered among the most menial of tasks it was given to the lowest-ranking servant, usually a female slave. So when Jesus approached Peter with the intention of washing his feet, Peter at first refused because he believed Jesus to be far greater, not lesser, than himself. In washing his disciples'feet Jesus sought to teach them a final lesson about his relationship to them and their relationship to each other. After he had finished, he explained the meaning of his actions:

Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:12-17).

According to some of the biblical accounts of the Last Supper the meal took place on the Thursday before the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Therefore the washing of the disciples'feet is commemorated on Thursday of Holy Week, otherwise known as Maundy Thursday.

Footwashing in the Middle Ages

By the early Middle Ages Christian religious authorities participated in ceremonial reenactments of the washing of the disciples' feet. In these ceremonies those in authority honored Jesus'teaching concerning love and humility by washing the feet of those below them. In the Roman Catholic Church this ritual became known as the mandatum, which means "commandment" in Latin. The name comes from another teaching given by Jesus at the Last Supper. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus tells his disciples:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).

Ceremonial footwashing, instituted by Jesus himself, came to symbolize this commandment.

During the Middle Ages priests, abbots, bishops, and even the pope washed the feet of poor or humble people on Maundy Thursday. The ceremony was practiced from a very early date in Spain. In 694 the seventeenth Synod of Toledo, an important meeting of Spanish clerics, warned that those religious authorities who did not perform it risked a two-month excommunication, or expulsion, from the Church. St. Bede, a scholarly English monk who lived in the eighth century, wrote that churchmen were practicing the custom in Lindisfarne, England, in the seventh century. Indeed the ritual was well known in medieval monasteries, where the monks customarily invited a group of poor men to have their feet washed on Maundy Thursday. After the poor men took their seats, the monks knelt before them, washed, dried, and kissed their feet. Then they touched their foreheads to the men's feet. Afterwards the monks provided the paupers with beverages, kissed their hands, and gave them two pence. Then the monks retired to their chapter-house to repeat the ceremony among themselves. This time the abbot and prior, the highest ranking people in the community, washed the feet of the other monks. Then the abbot and prior washed each others'feet.

Footwashing began to be practiced in Rome in the twelfth century, at a time when monastic traditions and ideas gained influence with the pope. Historical records from this era tell that the pope washed the feet of thirteen poor men on Maundy Thursday. Twelve of them represented the twelve original apostles. The additional thirteenth man may have represented St. Matthias, who replaced Judas after his desertion and death. He may also have stood for St. Paul, an angel, or even Christ himself. This ceremony quickly fell into disuse, although another ceremony in which the pope washed the feet of twelve subdeacons survived for centuries.

In the Middle Ages European monarchs and noblemen also reenacted Christ's gesture of love and service by washing the feet of poor people on Maundy Thursday. In France the tradition dates back to the eleventh century. Saint Elizabeth, the thirteenth-century Hungarian princess, reportedly adopted the custom of washing the feet of twelve lepers on Maundy Thursday. In England historical records reveal that King John (1167-1216) was the first English monarch to perform this ritual. Like the pope, King John and his successors washed the feet of thirteen men. King Edward III (1312-1377) added a new twist to the ritual by tying the number of people whose feet he washed to his own age. He also gave them gifts of food, money, and clothing. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) heaped these gifts into a basket known as a "maund." After the time of King James II (16331701) the English monarchs discarded the custom of washing the feet of the poor, although they continued making gifts of food, clothing, and money. In time the customary gifts were replaced by money. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) limited her gift giving to specially minted coins called "Maundy money." In Spain, however, both the king and queen continued to wash the feet of the poor well into the twentieth century. The current English monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, carries on the tradition of Maundy Thursday gift giving, bestowing Maundy money on one person for each year she has lived.

Current Observance

After the close of the Middle Ages footwashing ceremonies gradually began to fall into disuse, especially outside of the Church. They have experienced a revival of sorts in the twentieth century. In the Roman Catholic Church the restoration of the Holy Week liturgy in 1955 made the ceremony once again an integral part of Maundy Thursday religious services. Anglicans have also maintained this ancient custom as part of their Maundy Thursday observances. Footwashing is also practiced, though to a much lesser extent, by Orthodox Christians.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. "Feet." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Ferguson, Everett. "Footwashing." In his Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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