You also should wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14
If you live alone, whose feet do you wash? — Basil of Caesarea
In an extraordinary move at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, nearly 700 bishops washed each other’s feet. Each lavished care and each received care in a moment of intimate fellowship. The narrative of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, read year by year on Maundy Thursday, gives us the image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples followed by his command that they are to wash one another’s feet. Much like his words in the synoptic gospels, when he presents the disciples with bread and wine, Jesus is fairly direct. One can speak of symbols and metaphors and allegories, but the words are plain: wash one another’s feet. It is a wonder, then, that Christians have spent so much time inspecting his words about his body and his blood, but quickly pass by this command. It is equally if not more clear and direct. Martin Luther’s dislike of foot-washing presents a great irony — the same Luther who held so tightly to the clear, surface meaning of Christ’s words “This is my body” at the Marburg Colloquy (1529).
Washing the feet of guests was and remains an important part of hospitality in the Middle East, and examples of it are scattered throughout Scripture (Gen. 18, 1 Sam. 25, Luke 7, 1 Tim. 5). Christ, as he gathered with his close followers the night before his passion, made it the very mark of Christian community: the Christian kneels before his brothers and sisters and washes their feet, and then (what may be more daunting), the same Christian allows others to serve him. Tertullian describes it as a common practice in the liturgies he knew in the late second century, while John Chrysostom encouraged his late fourth-century followers to imitate Christ in a similar way: not simply having one’s feet washed, but also washing. In the Middle Ages, however, the rite became something connected to abbots, bishops, and even civil magistrates and kings: the leader of a community made a great display of servanthood and washed the feet of the poor. Those whose feet were washed were often carefully selected and perhaps even representatives of the whole community. Sometimes the whole rite was given up and money was distributed instead, as if cash could substitute for the intimate act of washing the tired, aching feet of a fellow Christian — a powerful moment not only for the one being washed but also for the one doing the washing.
Tragically, the pattern of one person doing all the washing is the model we have developed in the Episcopal Church since the liturgical movement of the mid-twentieth century. Nothing could be further from the clear words of Christ to his Church, words that speak of an intimate fellowship in which brothers and sisters care for one another and, perhaps more challenging, are open to receiving care. We don’t do grace well, do we?
The priest, after the sermon on Maundy Thursday, usually stands before the congregation and reads an introduction to the foot-washing rite drawn from the Book of Occasional Services (BOS). The words speak of servanthood, but the focus is on the priest who will do the washing because, so the BOS introduction reads, this ceremony is to remind the priest about his calling in ordained ministry. The whole thing can become a grand display of false humility with people coming forward to have their feet washed by the priest. Do the people wash anyone else’s feet? No, because the rite is to remind the priest that he is a servant, surely not about the intimate nature of the Christian community made up of brothers and sisters who serve one another. Do they allow others beside the priest to wash their feet? Again no, because the rite is about the priest as a servant minister. Does the priest have his feet washed? Maybe, but that’s not really the point now is it?
Marion Hatchett gave only a couple of sentences about footwashing in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (1981) and these were focused on the anthems to be used. In 1996, however, Leonel Mitchell published a guide to Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, and he gives further advice on how the foot-washing rite can be done. Mitchell raises the possibility of having “designated representatives” come forward to have their feet washed.
Upon reflection, this is somewhat worse than the usual pattern described above. The focus is still on the priest who does the washing, but now only a handful experience it (and again they do no washing themselves). Would we dare to have representatives receive the sacraments on our part? Fortunately, Mitchell does mention the possibility of inviting the whole congregation to participate in washing and being washed, but his short discussion is couched in trembling admonitions about people needing direction and advice and warning. Surely congregations need instruction on how things will go, but Mitchell’s cautions likely strike fear in the heart of the average rector reading this while attempting to plan a full Holy Week. He or she is just as likely to give up and revert to the easy clericalist pattern in which the priest just does it all. This then becomes symbolic of the ministry of that particular parish church: the priest does it all while the people are passive recipients of sacerdotal care (and likely not so much the care of sisters and brothers).
I confess that I’ve been accused of clericalism, and I confess to using the expression Alter Christus in describing a theology of the priesthood, but the practices connected to footwashing in most of our churches are beyond the pale — and this is true even in more evangelical parishes. I began this post with a brief anecdote about the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and I described it as extraordinary. I think my chosen adjective, while unfortunate, is accurate.
As a coda, while I have stressed the themes of mutual care and intimacy, I will let the reader draw conclusions about the meaning of mutual submission inherent in washing feet and having one’s feet washed.
The featured image is a stained glass detail from Ampleforth Abbey, showing St Thomas of Canterbury and a beggar. The photo was taken by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons.