Footwashing: The Sacrament of Humility
Ask yourself how many times you have actually seen Jesus' commandment carried out in your church. If you're like most Christians the answer is never. For some reason this seems to be the one commandment that slips through the cracks. Perhaps it is because the idea of having someone else wash your feet makes people feel uncomfortable or self conscious. Perhaps there is an aversion to handling someone else's feet. Or, as is the case with some pastors, it is seen as an unnecessary ritual as long as we remain humble at heart. Whatever the excuse, Jesus did didn't give us an out. He didn't say, "Do just as I have done unto you....unless of course you have a thing about touching someone's feet, then I can understand you're grossed out." Nope. No get out of humility free cards.
Footwashing has traditionally been observed on Maundy Thursday, also known as Holy Thursday and Covenant Thursday. It is the Thursday before the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter). It is also the day the church has traditionally commemorates the Last Supper. Good Friday follows it and the entire week is called Holy Week, due to the tremendous importance of the events of this week in Jesus' life to the salvation of humanity.
The practice of footwashing is evidenced in the early church (For example in the writings of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Augustine), and is an important devotional practice and means of grace. Whenever we faithfully observe the commandments of God there is grace attached to that obedience, just as there is grace available in observing the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Beyond being a means of grace it allows us to participate in a sense in the events of Jesus' final days preceding His resurrection. These days were very emotionally charged, and if we enter into their commemoration with the scriptural history before our eyes and doing what He told us to do with our bodies, we more fully participate in and understand the passion of Jesus.
No Ante-Nicene description has come down to us to tell us how they observed this command, but that is of little importance. Churches can simply read the scriptural account as their pastors do what they are commanded to do. For those who prefer more structure, I offer the following based on the observance by the Church of the Brethren, as well as other traditional Christian sources.
THE RITE OF FOOTWASHING
Before receiving the Eucharist, the presbyter reads the account of the washing of the apostles feet, urging the congregation to self examination regarding humility. A basin of water and towel are brought to the foot of the altar or altar steps, along with a chair. The presbyter offers a prayer of humility and examination of conscience on behalf of himself and everyone present, and should designate several people whose feet he will wash to begin the service.
A hymn is sung appropriate to Holy Week.
The Symbol of Service
Presbyter: ( Reads John 13:1-17)
Some will say that to wash another’s feet is an outdated act, that the symbol is no longer common in our time. That is true, but we are not seeking to learn a common lesson, rather a deeper one that holds meaning for both the temporal and the spiritual life. This commemoration takes us far from our own world back to the time of a most important teaching of our Lord. Only as we relive those moments can that message be realized and live with us now.
We must note that the servanthood assumed by Jesus in this act is related to the dedication of his coming. It is eternally bound to the cause for which he came and died. As the bread and cup are symbols of the sacrifice and giving of his life, so the kneeling to wash one another’s feet is the symbol of the purpose and the living of his life.
By demonstrating the servanthood of his life, Christ calls all disciples to be servants. By commanding us to do likewise, he calls us away from the pride of position, prestige, and self centeredness, and leaves no doubt about his intent that we serve in love. We do violence to the heart of this act if we suppose that by stooping to wash another’s feet we rise in status in the kingdom. We do not kneel only to demonstrate humility, but to remember the service of the life of Christ, and to let that memory fill us with a realization of our calling to serve and love others just as he has served and loved us.
A Hymn appropriate to Holy Week should be sung.
Presbyter: Let us with eager, searching hearts do this in remembrance of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, and may we, in our service to each other, allow the meaning of his command to deeply change our lives.
Each of those previously chosen come forward, each in their own turn, as the presbyter kneels and washes and dries their feet. After he has done so, the presbyter and congregant stand and bestow on each other the "holy kiss", or an embrace. (Romans 16:16, I Peter 5:14) Then, those who have just had their feet washed choose someone from the congregation whose feet they will wash, until either everyone has done so or none come forward. Hymns appropriate to Holy Week are sung throughout.
Presbyter: As we have washed one another’s feet and expressed our affection with an embracing warmth, we have symbolized our intention to live by a different standard: to care about and for other people, to value their salvation as well as our own, to seek their highest good. This love we proclaim, is an inseparable part of what it means to know and love God.
The following prayer may be offered, or a personal prayer of the presbyter if preferred.
Eternal Creator and Loving God,
We have knelt to wash one another’s feet as You commanded.
May we kneel also in our hearts
so that our lives may bow in service
to Your will and not our own.
We have had our feet washed.
Even so, may our lives be cleansed with Your forgiveness
so that we may go forth
living as Your servant, demonstrating Your love for all.
Lord, cleanse our relationships with one another as well.
May we forgive and accept forgiveness from one another
for any hurts or wrongs or misunderstandings
that have passed between us,
so that we may rise to sit together at Your table
in a renewed and strengthened fellowship in Your love. Amen.
Communion should then be observed.