The Question: Pastor Frank, It seems to me that many people are uncomfortable with having their feet washed on Maundy Thursday. It has been suggested in our parish that we offer a “washing of the hands” instead, in order to encourage more participation. My initial reaction was that we should not change this ancient ritual. I also thought it would be a good opportunity for parishioners to confront those aspects of life (and worship) which may be uncomfortable. Is it appropriate to perform a washing of the hands ritual, as opposed to washing of the feet?
Answer: Jesus gave us an example on the night in which he was betrayed and was pretty specific about it. He took off his outer garment, got down on the floor, and began washing the feet of his disciples. Peter also gave an example—of refusal—until Jesus broke him down and said, “If I don’t wash your feet you have no part of me.” Then Peter was ready to be washed all over. Jesus replied, “your feet are enough.”
I do not think it is appropriate to wash hands instead of feet. Apart from the possibility that an astute worshiper might recall Pontus Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus, the symbolism is all wrong. Parents might wash the hands of small children, but we usually wash our own hands. Servants wash the feet of travelers. Nurses and nurses’ aids wash the feet of patients in hospitals and care facilities. This is the whole point of Jesus’ example in John 13. He was demonstrating a servant role that he expected his disciples to continue.
Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis serves a supper to street people every Thursday night—the night of the Lord’s Supper in the synoptic gospels and the foot washing in the Gospel of John. Members of the congregation wash the feet of the guests before dinner. For people who are walking all day, and probably in broken down footwear, this must feel really good.
Traditionally a bishop or pastor washed the feet of twelve selected persons, as the pope does in Rome. The idea is breaking down hierarchy by having the pastor or teacher wash the feet of acolytes or students. Pope Francis included prisoners and women among those whose feet he washed. Amish and Mennonites, on the other hand, wash each others feet. At the Episcopal Church I attend, there is an opportunity for those in attendance to wash each others feet.
At St. Augustine’s the Maundy Thursday Liturgy begins in the fellowship hall with a pot luck dinner, during which the readings are read and a homily is given. Then the congregation processes into an adjoining room where chairs are placed on all four sides with a basin and pitchers of warm water and white towels in front of them. There are other chairs for people to sit on; or people may stand about as we sing the Taizé chant, Ubi caritas at amor (“Where charity and love prevail”). Participants sit in the foot washing chair and removes their shoes and socks. Then someone kneels down and washes their feet. Then that person takes the chair and someone else steps up and washes that’s person’s feet. This continues until there is no one sitting in the foot washing chair. Some people participate, some don’t, and no one is keeping a record. Then we process into the nave singing an intercessory litany for the celebration of the Eucharist, beginning with the offertory. After communion the altar is stripped and there is a procession with the Eucharistic elements to the chapel as we sing the Pange lingua corporis (“Sing, my tongue, of the body”). The eucharistic elements are placed on the altar of repose. After a concluding prayer people leave in silence. Some may remain to keep vigil.
The foot washing done in this way is low key and non-threatening; it is also inviting. I invite pastors and church leaders to try it.
Pastor Frank Senn
Pope Francis washes feet of youth