by Thomas O’Loughlin
Try to imagine these two scenes. The first took place at a meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1998 when Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, addressed them. There were men and women in modern clerical dress, others, mainly men, in the exotic robes of yesteryear, some with complex claims to authority derived from the apostles and others from the fact of their empowerment by the Spirit. Some had centuries of repeated arguments to create barriers between them while others could barely enter such a thought world. Tracking who considered whom a ‘real’ minister and who would be willing to receive ‘ministry’ from whom would require a computer, yet they could all be united in one ritual: footwashing. With Vanier’s teaching ringing in their ears they walked in procession to wash-up basins set on the floor of the hall and washed each others’ feet. Vanier, recalling this moment when he saw an Orthodox bishop kneel down and wash the feet of a female American Baptist minister, wrote, “gestures sometimes speak louder and more lastingly than words.”
The second scene is a house, large enough to entertain guests, somewhere in the Greco-Roman world two millennia ago. Guests arrive for a meal having walked through dirty streets or along dusty roads. Refreshment, comfort, and hospitality come together in letting them wash their feet before settling down to eat together. But hospitality can go one better: they can have their feet washed for them – and when this happens the task falls to a slave. Indeed it is the lowliest task that a household slave, invariably a woman, had to perform. At one level it is a gesture of welcome and hospitality, and act of valuing the other: the guest’s comfort is at the forefront of the host’s thoughts and the action shows the respect in which the visitor is held. At another level it is an act of exploitation and human debasement: the slave is not acting out of respect for her owner’s guest but because she has no choice to carry out what was seen as a demeaning task, and in carrying out the task her own humanity is denied and she is reduced to a function. These realities were well understood across the Greco-Roman world and there are many texts – such as the Greek translation of Gen 18:1-4 – that show they were understood within Judaism at the time of Jesus. Indeed, it is only with this item of cultural knowledge, that having one’s feet washed is a sign of honor but having to wash feet is a sign of servitude – that we can understand the account of the footwashing that is memorable incident in John the Evangelist’s account of the Last Supper (John 13:1-15).
The final Passover meal and the actions of Jesus
Over the past two centuries a vast effort has been put into a quest to see what words by Jesus as found in the four canonical gospels can be said to go back to Jesus. The result is usually – despite loud noises of protest – that we cannot get back to the ‘very words of Jesus’ but must be content with the way that the community of his followers remembered those words and that it is this memory that constitutes the what was distinctive about those communities in their approach to God and the way which they held had been opened up for them by Jesus. One side effect of this concentration on ‘the words of Jesus’ has been to ignore the fact that some of the actions of the early communities are so much at odds with that of the surrounding cultures that we need to view these disruptions as having their origins in actions by Jesus himself. One such case is that of his action of washing his disciples feet. The idea that Jesus would take on the role of a female slave, he who was seen as teacher and, indeed, Lord, is so disruptive within the overall memory of him within the churches that it must have a basis in an actual action.
That Jesus set about washing the feet of his followers was indeed so disruptive that in the sole recollection of the event, in John 13, that we can uncover several levels of discomfiture with the action in the account. First there is the objection of Peter (13:8) that it is inappropriate for him to have his feet washed by Jesus – and the reply that anyone who does not partake in having their feet washed cannot partake in the Christ. Second, there is the objection of proper order and decorum (13:13): servants and not masters, pupils not teachers, followers and not leaders should wash feet; but for Jesus this is another area where the values of his group are to be upside-down with what is commonly expected. In his community the masters are to wash the servants feet because they are part of the new Israel, the community. This same message is found in the Synoptic Gospels in the statement: ‘the kings of the gentile lord it over them; and those in authority are called ‘Benefactors’. But not so among you: rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’ (Luke 22:25-6 // Mk 10:42-5; Mt 20:25-8). But words are one thing, getting down on to the floor and washing feet is something far more demanding! However, that is what John expects and we have one of the very few commands addressed to the church: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. I indeed have set you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:14-5). It is curious how easily we remember the command to make disciples and baptize (Mt 28:19) and to remember Jesus at eucharistic meal (Luke 22:19), but forget that there is also a command about washing one another’s feet preserved within the gospel record.
The practice of the early followers of Jesus
The action recalled in John, remembered within a context of opposition from the disciples, along with other references to footwashing (e.g. Lk 7:38) is sufficient to show that one practice of the early churches was that of washing each other’s feet as a way of imitating Jesus and demonstrating that their communities had different values from those around them. From the early second century we have, moreover, one piece of direct evidence for the practice. In the document on community organization we call 1 Timothy we find this statement: ‘she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet …’ (5:10). Clearly, it was a practice but one which is far less socially disruptive in that it is now a woman’s task, and it is the task of a woman who needs to be enrolled among ‘the widows’ (those dependent on the church’s charity). They have kept the action, but have also preserved the social hierarchy: it is a menial task that can prove that a poor woman is a ‘deserving case.’ The notion that leaders of the community might do it to the least – such as one of those poor old women (they had to be 60+) has been quietly forgotten.
The stark reality was that while it was nice to think about Jesus’s words and imagine the scene in the mind, the reality of an owner of a slave getting down and washing the slave’s feet was just too dangerous of social order. Likewise, as Christian ministers began to see themselves within the Roman class structure – which we see in the rise of references to ministry as ‘holy orders’ – they could not see themselves as servants except rhetorically. It is one thing to refer to oneself as a servant, a ‘minister,’ but quite another to actually behave in that way! Of course, there were groups who took it seriously – footwashing was practiced in monasteries to help the monks understand how they should relate to one another and how they should welcome guests – but, on the whole, footwashing was marginalized.
But was it not a part of the ritual on Holy Thursday? Indeed, but it was seen as a once-off affair that showed humility and the whole event was seen as a mime of the Last Supper rather than something that every member of the church was called upon to do and one which was to set the tone for their mutual relationships. The great exception to this was some of the Baptist groups at the time of the Reformation who revived it as a community practice, but even among these groups the tendency over time was to make it a token affair and one that became ever rarer. The fact is that having to wash another’s feet touches something deep within us: it is not an idea that appeals to us or attracts us. In marginalizing it we are in very good company – going all the way back to the first disciples – but there is still that original awkward fact: the action of Jesus.
Mime or learning experience
Footwashing has a place in the Liturgy of Holy Thursday – albeit an optional item. But is easily becomes a token mime (as the pointless arguments over whether the feet of women can be washed illustrate: these debates imagine liturgy as historical reproduction rather than the action of disciples today) or are interpreted as a demonstration of clerical humility (a quality which if it is not already obvious can make such an action look like a piece of spin). Surely what the gospel of John is calling us to confront our deeper attitudes of preferring to be served rather than to serve – and this is something that every church member needs to address. Hence the gospel assumes that each person both washes feet and has their feet washed by another.
But if it is to be done on Holy Thursday, then it is an action with which people are already familiar. So hold it first as a Lenten exercise: a part of rediscovering discipleship. Whether it is located at a Eucharist or a Penitential Service or wherever, mutual footwashing can be a real learning experience. It was with years of just that experience in L’Arche behind him that led Vanier to offer it as a learning experience to others and to declare: “gestures sometimes speak louder and more lastingly than words.”
Washing feet is always a messy business – it is all of a piece with the messy situation in which we humans find ourselves – but it can be done. When it is done it is not theatrical presentation of John’s text but a collective response to the shocking example of Jesus that becomes real in our own actions. Mutual footwashing is not what most people expect from liturgy. It challenges our imaginations as it once did in the community of John. It may leave behind a damp floor, but for those who have taken part it will have communicated a renewed vision of the church.
Thomas O’Loughlin is the author of the recent Liturgical Press book Washing Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today. He is professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, UK.