Holy Thursday. Fr Lawrence Lew ponders on the symbolism of footwashing.
My mother used to remind me before every meal to wash my hands, and despite my juvenile reluctance, as with so many maternal pronouncements, this injunction made much sense. For it was a hygienic practice conducive to good health. But since we don’t generally eat with our feet, foot-washing in preparation for sitting down to dine is somewhat less obviously sensible. So, leaving aside the fact that this was typically the task of a Gentile slave, one can appreciate Peter’s consternation. Moreover, travellers customarily had the dust washed off their feet when they entered a home but Christ and his companions had already sat down for supper; the expected moment for foot-washing had passed. Without the Evangelist’s theological gloss, Christ’s action at this point of the supper is indeed puzzling.
Given the superfluous nature of foot-washing at this juncture, Peter, once he realizes that it is a symbolic act, understandably asks that all of him is washed. But Jesus insists on washing just the feet of his followers. We’re probably familiar with this as a sign of Christ’s humility and loving service which we’re then called to imitate, and that is true. However, rather than to just look at what Christ did, perhaps we should consider what Christ washed: feet.
Feet are often taken for granted, and some of us might even be ashamed of them. Certainly many a parishioner who’s been asked to have their feet washed at the Maundy Thursday Mass will know the embarrassment of having to uncover their foot to their parish priest… And some might even have had a pedicure beforehand! So, Christ washes our feet as a sign that we should not be afraid to reveal to him even those things of which we are most ashamed. Those secret sins and shameful deeds that we cannot even admit to ourselves need to be surrendered to Christ. So that he can wash us of them, removing our shame with his love. He restores the shameful parts of our lives to their proper beauty by washing. And he kisses them, that is, he imparts the Holy Spirit to fill our lives so that they may give off the perfume of one who is cleansed – the fragrance of holiness.
Feet are also vitally important if we’re to stand upright as homo sapiens, and to walk. So Christ cares for those things which make us truly human, and he restores us to the beauty of our original humanity, which is washed from the stain of sin. Indeed, by our baptism we have been re-made in the image of Christ himself, the second Adam who is truly human as well as truly divine.
Jesus does this so that we might walk and be sent. The feet are the tools, so to speak, of the messenger, of the apostle. Since Christ sends us, his disciples, out as heralds of the Gospel, so, in preparation for this, he washes our feet. As St Paul says: ‘How can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”‘. Therefore, the washed feet are a symbol of the preacher, and of the grace of preaching is given by Christ.
However, St Augustine says that those who desire to save souls must not be afraid to get their feet dirty, and Blessed Humbert of Romans speaks even of the inevitable sins that a preacher risks incurring for the sake of saving souls. Because the preacher’s mission is motivated by love, he risks even his own cleanliness for the sake of others, that they might hear the Gospel and believe in Christ.
In return, Christ looks after his preachers. He cares for the weary and dirtied feet of his disciples, and he washes and makes them beautiful again. For it is only by the grace of Christ that we can be cleansed and be made beautiful. It is only by the love of Christ that our sins are forgiven. And it is precisely this that we have to imitate. We are called to wash the feet of our fellow Christians, that is, to forgive them their sins. For Augustine, this especially meant forgiving the sins of the clergy who committed sins in the course of their work in the Lord’s vineyard.
On this evening when we recall the institution of the ministerial priesthood, and of the Eucharist, it is worth thinking about forgiveness, washing one another’s feet as our Lord and Teacher has washed ours. For without forgiveness we can have no part in the Lord, in the communion of love and unity which the Mass signifies. So, foot-washing, understood as forgiving one another, does make sense before we dine together. It is an act conducive to the good health of the Church.