Act has become a tradition on Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday.
An experience at a foot-washing at a Maundy Thursday service as a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary gave the Rev. Sara Isbell insight into how profound the ritual can be.
“There was one particular homeless man,” recalls Isbell, now the pastor of Chatham (Ill.) United Methodist Church, “who frequented our worship services and other events. He knelt down and washed my feet and he was very gentle and caring, like he understood the symbolism and was taking it seriously.
“When it was my turn to wash his feet, I just remember thinking how different his feet looked from my own. His feet had been to some hard places, and not always with shoes on. But there was something sort of sacred in caring for him that way.
“We thanked each other, which was probably the first time I had really looked into his face, or he into mine. It was like we saw the face of Christ in each other.”
Isbell has always included foot-washing in Maundy or Holy Thursday services at each of her stops.
Worshippers at some churches wash the feet, and in some instances, the hands, of other worshippers. Catholic churches select representatives from the congregation, with the priest acting in the role of the washer.
Seventh-Day Adventists also practice foot washing — called the Ordinance of Humility — during its communion services, usually four times a year.
‘Symbol of service’
Foot-washing is an act, some pastors say, of service and humility and a forecast of Christ’s redemptive death on the cross. The account in the Gospel of John — none of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke mentions the foot-washing — takes place during the Passover supper, before Christ’s arrest.
The Rev. Robert Jallas, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Springfield, Ill., says that while foot-washing had a practical purpose, given the climatic conditions and methods of travel during Christ’s time, there was a pecking order when it came to who washed feet, so Christ’s act might have rightfully caused an uproar.
“Those who were poor would rinse off their feet. If you were wealthy, you would have a servant wash your feet,” Jallas says. “The willingness of Jesus to wash the feet of disciples became a symbol of service, an outpouring of himself and, ultimately, (a willingness) to do that on the cross. The mandatum, literally, the mandate, is to pour one’s self out for others.”
Isbell adds: “Peter was disconcerted because the servants should have been doing (the foot-washing). He was concerned about the power differential. I think of it as an act of service. If we are remembering this story, this is exactly what Jesus does: he takes off his outer robe and strips to servant garb.”
In the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition, those church members who choose to participate wash one another’s feet, with men separated from women.
Although it is a simple act, points out Judy Jagitsch, a member of New Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Springfield, it can take on greater meaning if someone is going through an illness or a particularly tough time.
Oftentimes, says John Lewis, pastor of the Springfield Seventh-Day Adventist Church, church members will use foot-washing as an opportunity for reconciliation.
“Foot-washing provides an opportunity for us to come together as one and to put aside our differences,” Lewis says. “When I’ve washed feet, I’ve often sought out those people I’ve wanted to encourage or uplift in some way.
“It’s a sign of servitude, of being a servant toward your brother or sister in Christ.”
At a church where he previously served, Lewis remembers two church members who had been divided for many years come back together through the foot-washing ritual. The next day, Lewis recalls, one of the men was killed in an auto accident.
“When you wash someone’s feet, it’s a powerful experience,” Isbell says. “For me, the tradition has meaning when we turn and do it for others.
“When you can involve the body more in the service, you more full experience what God wants us to do. It starts with Ash Wednesday (when we receive ashes.) We wave the branches on Palm Sunday. We hear the hammer (pounding the nails into the hands on Good Friday.)
“We put ourselves into the story. We don’t want him to go to the cross by himself.”
‘Appreciative and honored’
Before the early Christian church codified “the sacraments,” Jallas says foot-washing was seen as “a sacramental act. It has baptismal allusions as well.”
Where men were exclusively chosen by the Catholic church to have their feet washed in the Holy Thursday mandatum, it has become “customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite,” with an emphasis on “service along with charity in the celebration of the rite,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on the Liturgy.
Jallas says he tries to find a cross-section of people to participate, once inviting an entire family, including an infant.
“It was touching in an endearing way,” Jallas says. “People whose feet are washed are always appreciative and honored.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.