Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Foot Washing?

“Shall we wash feet on Maundy Thursday, or not?” It seems that in some liturgical circles congregational participation in a foot washing ritual is considered mandatory.

I’m not a great fan of Holy Thursday foot washing for several reasons.

For one thing, it is not clearly mandated as is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper—either by the Lord himself or the Scriptures that tell about him. Jesus doesn’t hold back in directing his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine he offers at the final meal, because in the sharing he is giving of himself. The scriptural warrant for the Lord’s Supper is unmistakably ordered by the Master for future gatherings, starting with the earliest reference by the Apostle Paul in his firsts letter to the Corinthians (11:23-26) and the three synoptic gospels (Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, and Lk. 22:7-39).

On the other hand, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17:26) is offered as an example of what the disciples “ought” to do for one another. The action takes place at the final meal in the context of the revelation of Judas’s imminent betrayal and a large amount of last minute instructions for the rest of the disciples. While it takes place at the table, the mandate of the Last Supper is never mentioned, and neither are the references to sharing the bread and wine Jesus offers. The act of cleaning the disciples’ feet is a dramatization of the servant role the disciples are given by their Lord.

The point is that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as observed at the Last Supper is dominant, for that is where the final drama takes place. It is in our sharing of Christ’s gifts of bread and wine that we share in his life, and as the Holy Week moves along, in his death as well. But the rite of foot washing is secondary to the sacrament, at most. To make a large production out of it allows it to up-stage the real action: bread is broken and shared, wine is poured and passed from one to another, and Christ is present.

This is not to minimize the import of the cleansing rite, for it is a strong theological message the Master left all who would follow him—21st century disciples included. The biblical view of foot washing was a cultural gesture of hospitality and humility—worthy virtues for any follower of Jesus.

Another reason I’m not terribly enthusiastic about a foot washing ritual is that it is often carried out in a complicated and clumsy manner. The last one I took part in was in a large congregation, and it took much longer to wash feet than it did to partake of the Holy Meal. It was a huge distraction and anti-climax, drawing attention away from the Meal.

Also, my experience has been that a number of people stay seated for the ritual of foot washing and are observers rather than participants. It may be personal embarrassment or medical reasons or whatever, but they are in a very passive if not withdrawn mode. That puts them in a very different role as an audience, and removes them from performing the worship to show their obedience and humility.

Finally, when such liturgical floundering is anticipated, there is the temptation to improvise or improve on the foot washing by doing something “cute.” For example, I recently heard about one attempt made to include the substance of the foot-washing by allowing people to keep shoes and socks on and instead wash hands. That, they decided, would be much less “distasteful” than bathing the feet. Of course that misses the original cultural point of foot washing in the first place. Changing feet to hands is moving away from meaning of Christ’s example with his disciples and the mandates he taught them. Some have even suggested hand-washing among Christians on Maundy Thursday can be liturgically linked to Pilate’s hand scrubbing. That is a stretch, to say the least.

If your congregation is going to have foot washing on Maundy Thursday as a worshipful action, there are some cautions.

First, be sure the congregation is educated in advance about the theological meaning and what it can mean for them personally as an act of devotion and worship.

Also, make sure worshippers have prepared their feet to be washed—they might best come not wearing stockings and have on shoes easily removed.

Finally, work out the choreography so people know where they’re going and don’t stumble or bump into one another—perhaps they may instead use the time for contemplation of Christ’s presence in the event they are celebrating.

This is, after all, Holy Week, and the journey to the Cross is the path our worship pilgrimage must take. Our Lord presides at the Table to offer us food for this life-changing journey.


  1. Thanks for these thoughts. You have captured many of my own qualms about and distaste for the footwashing ceremony.

  2. We do a hand washing (Action of Hospitality) it comes immediately following the Assurance of Pardon.
    It symbolizes forgiveness, replaces passing the peace and prepares us for dinner an action that I think represents hospitality similar to foot washing in Jesus’ time. It doesn’t take long we move into the hymn and we have a time of fellowship while eating a covered dish supper together.
    The Sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated at the same supper table together, the most significant part of the evening.
    Then we move into the Sanctuary for a time of silent meditation.
    Followed by hearing the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 22) & Stripping the Church for the Good Friday Service.

    I would love to hear your feedback?

    1. Tom, this is a creative effort on your part. I'd love tyo hear how it was received by the worshippers. The fact that you share in handwashing before the dinner is sort of close to the foot washing of biblical times, except we rarely wash our gests' hands these days. So I think it's still a stretch. The whole service you tell about appears to be a rich prayerful experience for your church people. Thanks for sharing your views and experience with us.


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