Monday, April 2, 2012

The feat of washing feet

Every Maundy Thursday, Catholics who make it a point to go to the evening Mass celebrating the Supper of the Lord witness and participate in something that speaks volumes far beyond the action that is being carried out in front of their eyes.  They witness the priest washing the feet of twelve men, usually seated in the sacred space of the sanctuary. 

What is going on here?  Father’s foot reflexology?  Priestly pedicure?  Anyone not having a clue about our Church’s tradition and seeing this for the first time would be excused for thinking thus.   In actual fact, a sacred action is taking place, and it draws and invites a similar action on our part.  We are not to be mere viewers or spectators.  We are actually being instructed by example.

The “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin mandatum, a noun meaning law, or command.  This is the root word of the English “mandate” or “mandatory”.  Jesus gives the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  And we must love one another in this way.  On that night of the Lord’s Supper, he began by doing something that was hitherto unseen and unthought of – the master washing the disciples’ feet. 

There is something that the Celebrant does before the foot washing at that Mass that one can miss if one don’t pay enough attention.  In front of the entire congregation, the priest removes his chasuble, and places it on the Altar.  It’s the only time in the entire liturgical year that this action is done, and the significance is deep and rather compelling.  It is not just for mere practical reasons.  Certainly, bending low wearing a flowing garment of sometimes heavy damask fabric to wash 12 men’s feet makes it just practical to remove as much as one’s outer garments as possible.  But its significance goes much deeper.

We are told that on that night of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus removed his outer garment first.  When the priest does this, he does this in imitation of Christ.  One notices the purposeful removal of one’s office, one’s outer accoutrements that signify rank or office, to do this very important task.  Theologically, there is something similar going on in the mystery of the incarnation.  The incarnation is a mystery that has such deep and profound significance.  One of the ways in which we can appreciate it is to refer to 2 Corinthians 8:9 where we are told that Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for our sake, became poor, so that you in your poverty could become rich.  Heretics have made the mistake to say that Jesus stripped himself of his divinity.  He did not.  Jesus never did that.  But there was a significant, deliberate and willingness to take on humanity on his part.  On that night, at the upper room, the disciples experienced what this meant in the humble act of foot washing.  Here we have a deliberate willingness to put aside position, status and any sense of superiority because the kingdom of heaven has a preference for the lowly and the meek.  Furthermore, love, as St Thomas would put it some 1500 years later, is defined as willing the good of the other for the other.

Apart from the deliberate removal of status and position in a relationship to convey love, this action also demonstrates the relinquishing of the deep-seated need to be right.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks to any relationship is the need to be right.  We only need to honestly reflect on our own lives to see that oftentimes, relationships and friendships have come asunder because we insisted stubbornly on the need to be right.  I recall having a retreat master telling us many years ago when we were in formation as seminarians, that one of the clearest signs of spiritual immaturity is to use the phrase “I told you so”.  There is great truth in this.  Whenever we use this phrase in our disagreements, isn’t our main purpose to thrust our superiority in the face of the other, ultimately to show them not just how wrong they are, but how right we are? 

In dispensing with rank and superiority, position and power, the act of foot washing becomes a lesson in dispensing with rightness in every way whatsoever.  The fact that Jesus emphasizes to the remonstrative Peter that this is something that he needs to be receiving shows that there is a residual effect in it.   It is later that Peter knew that by his very life of complete surrender was he carrying on the act of foot washing for the Church.  Notice though, that Judas also had his feet washed by the Lord, and his response was something that was totally different, because he went on to betray the Lord despite the foot washing.  The main difference is that Peter repented of his denial of the Lord, whilst Judas did not.  The offer of grace is totally gratuitous, and our response is one that is also totally free.  The responses of Peter and Judas being so completely different supports the teaching that the response to grace is never one that is forced and strips one of freedom.

I wonder how many minds bother to think so far whenever this scene is enacted out in front of them at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  If only every person who walks out of that Mass becomes so positively transformed to be a fellow foot-washer.  Spouses will love and serve with a new willingness; parents and children will love at a new level; work places will be less political and self-centered; the ego will slowly move from the centre to the fringe where less damage will be caused; life will be more fully respected and life will not just be lived. 

It will be celebrated.


  1. I last participated in the washing of the feet about 20 years ago. The retreat master sensed deep rifts in the retreat group & sprung the ritual on us. Being the excellent retreat master that he was (he still is one), he washed all our feet first. I remember protesting having my feet washed by him because he is a priest. I remember tears streaming down my face as he calmly & firmly grabbed my feet & cleaned them gently & lovingly. After he finished, he invited us to wash each other's feet.

    I picked the easiest person - the person I got on most well - to wash his feet first. I thought it would be very, very difficult for me to wash the feet of the person I could not get along with. But to my surprise, as the evening wore on, it became a joy to wash feet - the joy of reconciliation & a new understanding reached among the group members. Some of us from that group are so close that we are Godparents to each other's children.

    I've never attended the Eucharistic celebration on Maundy Thursday evening (yes, shame on me, I know); this year I will participate in my first one.

    It will not be my only one.

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  2. I have attended as many Maundy Thursday masses as I have been Catholic and each time at the Washing of the Feet I have never given it more than a cursory glance - accepting it as one of our catholic traditions in Holy Week......that is ....until at a Retreat some years back, we were told that evening itself that we had to participate in it. At that time I could identify with Peter – the uneasy feeling of dread and ‘’unworthiness’’ to have the priest who happens to be the retreat master, washing our ‘humble’ feet. I was hoping to shore up some resistance from the other retreatants but was sorely aghast that most seemed excited about it. So short of cowardly slinking away and sending myself to Coventry....I decided to grin and bear it, but I made sure that I would be the last few, in the hope that the retreat master would soon tire of it and do a perfunctory gesture at best or leave me out !

    It was not to be. Some were deeply moved and wept openly and unashamedly as the retreat master firmly but gently washed each person’s feet and lovingly dried them. There was a poignancy to this ritualistic moment of cool water being poured and ‘healing’ in human touch – a sense of being forgiven. What I had thought was going to be a ‘’humbling’’ moment of wretched unworthiness, became one of ‘’empowerment’’ - of a challenge, instead. ..... ‘’ Go and do thou likewise’’ – I could almost distinctly hear this. I felt a deep sense of peace and affirmation - of being loved.

    And like you said , ‘’this action- demonstrates the relinquishing of the deep-seated need to be right..’’ That evening was clearly etched out in my memory ..........for I went about washing the feet of my fellow retreatants not in the spirit of coercion but because this is His brand of leadership - the non-threatening leadership of the gentle servant King.
    God bless you, Fr

  3. Hi Father

    Having never even had a toe washed by any priest, I would have thought that it would be as stimulating as a pedicure. As such, I admit that the reactions from other readers who have actually participated in this ritual were entirely unexpected and gave me some pause for reflection. And I now better appreciate the wisdom and love of Jesus in that humbling but empowering action. Thanks for the fresh perspective!


  4. On this Maundy Thurs, I would like to wish you - Happy Feast Day, Father!

    Today, Jesus institutes the priesthood. He begins with washing the feet of his "priests". Priests, through the centuries, are asked to re-enact this great act of humility by our servant-King. I sincerely believe that the feet-washing reinforces the heart and soul of our priests in knowing that they are anointed to do this:
    The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
    for he has anointed me.
    He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
    to proclaim liberty to captives
    and to the blind new sight,
    to set the downtrodden free,
    to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.

    If this was a humble moment for the "washee", I believed it was a humbler moment for the washer. I wonder what goes through the mind of the priest who washes feet today. It may be easy if he just washes the feet of those he loves and are familiar with. What happens when he is to wash the feet of the zealots who challenge his meekness? The doubters who resist his goodness? The sinners who keep him awake all night praying? The spiteful ones who take advantage his gentleness? And finally, what are his feelings as he washes the feet of traitors?

    Thank you and all our good shepherds for re-enacting this self-emptying act of Jesus.

  5. Yesterday, I was told by my priest that he would wash my feet. “Why me?” I asked. He did not reply. I must have done something right to be given this honour to sit before the church and have my feet washed. I had to remember to wear my best clothes, the church is going to think, “Look at these fine deserving men.” I mused, “Now, I know I am better than John and Edward!”

    Today, I am going to have my feet washed. I am starting to doubt my disposition, “Why am I approaching this feet-washing as an ego-massaging?” I am getting nervous that for getting this wrong. I start reading the Scriptures and praying for an answer.

    Now, I am having my feet washed. The answer is right now. The person washing my feet is Christ, my Lord and my God. My King is all stooped low now, crouching, head almost touching the ground. Gently he holds my feet in his hands; he washes them and wipes them dry. Here I am seated on a nice and comfortable chair. But discomfort fills me. As my Lord washes, I see his back and head – Back that is going to be so painfully scourged and the head that is going to be so humiliatingly crowned. I know now why. It is never about me. It is the nature of our loving God. He washes all our feet – yes, sinners and traitors included.

    ‘Do you what I have done to you?” asks Jesus… I understand now, my Lord. These feet have to continue Jesus’ journey, to do our Father’s will of acting justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly.