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. As part of the health care provided to the street people 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.
The foot washing was part of the complex of baptismal rites in Milan under Bishop Ambrose. It may have spread into Gaul and Spain via Milan and was prescribed by the Synod of Toledo in 694. In the Western Middle Ages the mandatum (commandment) was performed by bishops, abbots, and even kings. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I continued the practice by washing the feet of poor women. The practice was revitalized by the Anabaptists in the 16th century as a communal ritual that accompanied the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Amish and Mennonites wash each others feet. The practice was reintroduced with the restoration of the Holy Week liturgies by Pope Pius XII in 1956. It was embraced by Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches in the liturgical renewal after the Second Vatican Council and included as an option in official worship books.
In my own parish practice I, as pastor, did the foot washing. I simply invited any who desired/were willing to participate to come to the front pew and remove their shoes and socks while the congregation sang the hymn “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” At the Episcopal Church I now attend, there is an opportunity for those in attendance to wash each others feet. It is an enactment of serving one another.
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 each chair. 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 remove their shoes and socks. 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.
(The liturgy continues with a procession into the nave as the litany of peace is chanted and picks up with the greeting of peace, offertory, and Great Thanksgiving. After the communion and the stripping of the altar there is another procession with the reserved eucharistic elements into the chapel where an altar of repose has been set up. People may remain there to keep vigil or disperse into the night.)
The foot washing done in this way is low key and non-threatening; it is also inviting. I invite pastors to try it. We’ve got to get away from this hand-wringing about bodily interaction that has been taking hold in our congregations in recent years. That is no way to renew liturgy. Liturgical renewal was precisely encouraging more bodily engagement in the liturgy. But if the members of the congregation cannot interact bodily with one another without eviscerating our Lord’s dramatic example, then just follow the old Roman practice of having the pastor wash the feet of a dozen or so selected members of the congregation.
Pastor Frank Senn
Pope Francis washes feet of youth