The Washing of Feet

“He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist” John 13:4-5

This post is not being written so that you can run up to your clergy and tell them they are screwing everything up. I promise you, that is simply the last thing they need this week. In truth, I should have posted this a month ago so that you would have time to let your liturgy planning commission or whatever you have know about this teaching in as charitable a way as possible.

So many people are confused about the Mandatum, or as it is more commonly known, the Washing of Feet. We have seen it done in so many ways that we are rightly confused. A major part of our confusion is a misunderstanding of what is going on here.

Peter was a bit confused at first as well, and we can see that in his response in John’s Gospel.

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”” John 13:6-8

Yes, there is an image of service here. It is very apparant ond obvious. To be first in the Kingdom of God, you must become a slave to all. Yup, we seem to get that just fine, and I am oh so glad, because it is the primary message here, but there is another thing happening here that people often miss, and I’m not surprised. The Jewish people were a “People of the Book”, and knew their scripture far better than we know our own. So when Peter is confused as to what is going on, he too only has the view of the servant, but Jesus sets him straight right away.

“Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”” John 13:8

Woah! What?! Oh, I’m sorry Jesus, I get what you are talking about now! Sure, I’m all in!

“Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”” John 13:9

What is it that he just figured out? Something just totally changed his attitude, what was it?

Well, here we need to talk about washing feet. When does this happen in scripture? Are there any other references to this washing? Guess what! There is!

First, let’s hearken back to Genesis 18:4, do you remember the story of the angels coming to visit Abraham? He washed their feet! Lot does the same thing a bit later at 19:2 to the angels that visit him. This is the only other reference to washing of feet in the entire Hebrew Scriptures. But wait, there is more.

Check out Exodus 40:12-13 and Leviticus 8:5-7 and guess what you find? The washing of priests as part of their ordination. Yup, this is a Rite not only of service, but of priestly institution. This is why Peter wanted his hands and head washed as well! He was recognizing the priestly ordination rite!

Now I’m obviously not saying that when we wash feet on Holy Thursday that we are ordaining men, but we are celebrating the institution of the priesthood, and therefore it is simply appropriate that only men have their feet washed. And if your parish washes more than just feet, this should also make you raise an eyebrow, after all,

“Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.”” John13:10

Yes the Mandatum is primarily about charity. It is the idea of service that is front and foremost. So please, be charitable when you are bringing this up to your friends and clergy!

But it is also about linking the Old Covenant priesthood to the priesthood of the New Covenant. It is about tying that priesthood to the angels, about making it divine. It’s not about service alone.

So yes, the Church is actually serious when it says in it’s rubrics,

“Depending on pastoral circumstance, the washing of feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.”

Just so you know, the United States Bishops spoke about this in 1987, and I wanted you to read it so that you knew that while the practice is suspect in my opinion, the adopted practice of washing both men and women’s feet is not necessarily illicit.

“….Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the “Teacher and Lord” who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.

While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men (“viri selecti”), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, “who came to serve and not to be served,” that all members of the Church must serve one another in love….” — Regarding the phrase “viri selecti”, the Chairman of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy

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