On Holy Thursday we commemorate three important events: 1) The institution of the Holy Eucharist, 2) The institution of the Priesthood and 3) Jesus’ new commandment to His disciples to love one another as He has loved us. The washing of the feet of the disciples is part of the love commandment which symbolize service and humility. Jesus tells His apostles, after He had washed their feet, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” In other words, the Holy Eucharist that we receive and celebrate day after day and week after week draws us into the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. As He humbled Himself to serve His apostles by washing their feet, so He showed us the way we are to love and serve one another.
Normally, the washing of feet is done during the Holy Thursday service but I have participated twice outside of this service: one at a wedding Mass, the bride and groom washed each other’s feet at the end of their wedding Mass and the other was at a 50th wedding anniversary. The husband and wife washed each other’s feet in the midst of their family members. It was a moving experience to participate in with their family, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all present to witness the event. This shows that washing of feet can be done not once a year on Holy Thursday, but can be done anytime, in the church or at home. Traditional Hindu families wash the feet of their gusts when they arrive. It is a sign of love and respect. In the ancient world the feet were the filthiest part of the body. Feet touch various surfaces and are exposed to dirt among other things. In the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world of Christ, most people did not wear sandals. It was a mark of hospitality to provide your guests with a basin or bowl in which to wash their feet when they visited your home, because they usually had to walk to get there, and they needed it very badly. Hence, for Jesus to bend down and wash the apostles’ feet was the ultimate gesture of service rendered in love.
We will not celebrate Holy Thursday service this year in the church. Therefore, I encourage you to do the washing of feet home, wash one another’s feet. All you need is a bowl, a pitcher of water and a towel. Before you begin, consider reading the account from the Gospel of John 13:1-17, then proceed to imitate Jesus’ example by washing the feet of your family members. An option could be to start with the father washing the mothers’ feet, the mother washing the eldest child’s feet and so on until the youngest child washes the father’s feet.
Living out Jesus’ command is not restricted to washing the feet of others in a literal manner and this action symbolizes so much more than a mere physical act. This activity brings home the teaching of humility and charity. Remember that the apostles had been quarreling as to who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom. Peter’s objection to Jesus washing his feet shows that washing the feet of others was an action reserved for slaves, so Peter could not understand how his Lord and Master was engaging in this action. What he and the others did not yet understand is that Jesus came to establish that the greatest in His kingdom is the one who is humble and serves others.
Additionally, the washing of the feet is a sign of the Sacrament of Penance, showing repentance and forgiveness, of rebirth in grace. Jesus clearly distinguished between the first cleansing which cleanses the whole person, and the washing of a part of the body. Baptism is the new birth, which means complete cleansing. After baptism, we still commit sins and need the partial cleansing that is symbolized by the washing of feet. As Bernard of Vlairvaux states, “Feet-washing is cleansing of those daily offenses which seem inevitable for those who walk in the dust of the world.” The lifelong process of sanctification is one of washing from the stain of sin as we walk through the world, and this is why it is so important for us to constantly turn to God with humility and ask for the forgiveness of our sins, both those that are known and unknown to us.
The washing of feet symbolizes our role in the body of Christ. Jesus has given us an example and as His followers, we are to emulate Him, serving one another in lowliness of heart and mind, seeking to build one another up in humility and love. When we seek the preeminence, we displease the Lord who promised that true greatness in His kingdom is attained by those with a servant’s heart. When we have that servant’s heart, the Lord promised that we will be greatly blessed.