Each year on the Thursday before Good Friday, the pope washes the feet of some communicants— up to 12 in number—in a ritual that has been performed for centuries. It’s this act that Jesus spoke of in the upper room the day before He died on Calvary.
Through the years, painters have shown Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. At least one painting shows Peter remonstrating with Jesus, refusing to let Him do so.
But also over the years, the practice, in most churches, has been discontinued—dismissed as anachronistic because of its cultural implications (we all prefer to keep our personal space to ourselves) or because of embarrassment. Our customs are so different from the days of Jesus when, after walking dusty roads in sandals, washing the feet was a necessity. But is the practice still valid in our modern, clean, well-dressed context? That’s a good question. To answer it, we need to examine what Jesus did back then and why He did it.
Let’s explore what Jesus did and said about footwashing, and its meaning and importance. The record is found in the thirteenth chapter of John. (Note that John did not include other aspects of the Last Supper, as did Matthew, Mark, and Luke. See Matthew 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–26; Luke 22:7–20).
Here is John’s record of the occasion: “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (verse 1).
In taking the role of the absent servant, who should have performed this service, Jesus showed the disciples how much He really loved them. He, the Lord of heaven, took on the humble role of a servant. His love and humility demonstrated the depths to which He would shortly go on the cross in order to save humankind. One cannot understand this practice of footwashing without linking it with the love of the Savior.
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (verses 3–5).
Before their disbelieving eyes, the disciples saw their Master filling the role of a servant. He was demonstrating that, for His followers, there can be no pride of position. Humility is the mark of the Christian.
Jesus reinforced this when He had finished washing their feet. He said, “ ‘I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master’ ” (verse 16). This must have been a very strong rebuke to His disciples who, shortly before, had been striving to be “the greatest” in His kingdom.
Going around the circle, Jesus eventually came to Peter. Never backward, and not fully understanding what was happening, Peter proclaimed loudly that Jesus would never wash his feet (see verse 8).
Jesus didn’t let this presumptuous assertion go unchallenged. Instead, He went to the heart of what it means to have a relationship with Him. He said to Peter, “ ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’ ” (verse 8).
So this act of footwashing was to show to all of humankind that the eternal, infinite love of Jesus is linked to the cleansing of the person, and that this cleansing comes through Jesus. It also makes clear our need to overcome all pride and self-importance, for it has no place in the life of a true follower of Jesus.
When Jesus pointed this out, Peter went to the other extreme, asking Jesus to wash not just his feet but his hands and head as well (see verse 9). Jesus responded by reiterating the proper place and meaning of footwashing. For in addition to removing the dirt from dusty highways, footwashing reminds us of His great sacrifice on the cross and keeps forever before our eyes who He is and what He has done for us.
What about today?
But do we need to wash others’ feet today? Meaningful as it may be, is this practice just a relic of the past with a good moral for today?
Jesus’ words come clearly to us: “ ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ ” He asked His disciples, “ ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ ” (verses 13–15; italics added).
This obviously is a command from Jesus Himself, albeit one that many today ignore, arguing changed circumstances and times. However, these words of Jesus still speak to us today.
Churches that retain the practice usually plan to carry it out as part of the Communion service. Jesus never gave instruction as to when we should perform either the Communion service or footwashing. But each time we participate in a foot-washing service, we demonstrate our need for humility, and we are reminded of the great love Jesus had for His disciples—and for us. Why would we want to disregard the words of Jesus and the blessing that comes from following His example?
An ancient rite
The practice of footwashing predates the twelfth century, when a pope is first recorded as washing the feet of 12 subdeacons. Augustine mentioned it in about the year 400, and Tertullian, a Christian author of the second century, spoke about it. Certainly, the disciples practiced it in the first century.
Coming forward, during the Middle Ages, footwashing was practiced by the Albigenses of southern France and the Waldenses of the Piedmont valleys of Italy. From the time of the Reformation, the Mennonites, Hussites, and certain Baptists groups have all followed the practice. Some Protestant groups, including Seventh-day Adventists (the publishers of Signs of the Times®), still practice footwashing today, usually at the time of the Communion service.
The foot-washing service teaches us that we must care for our fellow believers. However, Scripture is very clear that this service goes beyond humility and caring for others. We have an explicit command from Jesus, and all His commands bring blessings to those who follow them. When we participate in the foot-washing service, we demonstrate our willingness to follow Jesus fully.
I would rather put aside thoughts of embarrassment, ignore cultural mores and practices, and enter into a practice that Jesus taught. The experience has been a blessing to me, and it can be yours too.