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“I Have Given You an Example”

by Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue

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The Gospel according to John tells us that during the last meal Jesus shared with His Apostles, He did something that amazed them. Taking upon Himself a role assigned only to women, children, and gentile slaves, He washed their feet.

Breaking sharply with the custom of the times, early Christians widely followed Jesus’ example. Though not as well known in our time, footwashing was practiced extensively in the early Church. It is still part of the Holy Week liturgy of many Catholics, both East and West, and of Orthodox Christians.

Footwashing is also a regular part of the worship of over 100 Protestant denominations of the United States. Most of these are small groups – Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Sabbatarian – but footwashing is now enjoying a revival among mainline denominations and charismatic Catholics.

Why are so many people kneeling before the washbasin as Jesus did? Some clues can be found in the history of footwashing, which reveals its rich symbolic meaning.

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, connected the call to wash feet with serving the poor and imprisoned. By washing the feet of the needy and the forgotten, Christians imitated Jesus in assuming the role of the powerless.

A similar reversal of roles – those with power or privilege serving the humble – can be seen today in the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. Since children, the least powerful members of society, were frequently compelled to wash feet, Armenian and Greek priests and bishops often wash the feet of twelve children.

In the Coptic Church, footwashing became a part of the Holy Thursday Mass, where it was linked to the Hebrews’ crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. In many Christian churches, footwashing is now a regular part of the Holy Thursday service. Celebrants often symbolize their servant role by removing their vestments before they wash the feet of the faithful.

For some early advocates of footwashing, including the theologian Origen of Alexandria and the Eastern Father St. Athanasius, Christian sympathy for the poor meant refusing to war against them. Most of the Brethren, Mennonite, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Sabbath – keeping Protestant denominations in the United States that observe the washing of the feet also oppose participation in combat.

The importance of footwashing is also demonstrated by its inclusion in adult baptismal ceremonies in the early Church. In Europe and North Africa, adult baptism by immersion was common for many centuries. The washing of the new Christian’s feet, which occurred between immersion and First Communion, symbolized the joining of a new community marked by personal transformation and radical equality.

In Christian churches where footwashing takes place within the celebration of a common meal, it also symbolizes the table-fellowship Jesus creates among His followers. Their union in Christ breaks down the divisions of status that are assigned to them elsewhere in society.

For centuries both in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western Church, the washing of the feet has been performed by those of highest authority. Athanasius wanted the reversal of roles and the celebration of equality in Christ to be carried over into daily life; he urged bishops to eat often with their priests, serving them at table and washing their feet.

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Tags: Unity Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Monasticism