Footwashing is Gross

I’ve never liked feet.  Feet are just…nasty.  Now, I can handle feet in socks and shoes because I don’t have to look at them, but anything with an open toe is over the top.  And, no, I don’t have a single, specific reason why feet freak me out.  I just know that feet—whether they’re clad in flip-flops, $100 sandals, or jellies à la 1988—are dirty, dusty, and just plain yuck.

Now, you may have noticed an obvious problem with my being grossed out by feet and worshipping in a liturgical tradition.  You are, of course, wondering how I feel about Holy Thursday, with its infamous pedilavium?  This ritual demands bare feet: touching bare feet, looking at bare feet, and points blazing hot lights on the actions of Jesus, who apparently did not find bare feet disgusting, but loved this dusty, sweaty, and most unattractive body part.

I can hear about the actions of Jesus and easily rationalize them to myself as “symbolic.”  Washing feet is a symbol of service—we sImage result for jesus washing feethould be servants to one another, and do things we don’t want to do because we want to serve one another.  The footwashing tells me that I should be the one to take on the chore that no one else wants:  I should take out the trash this week—I should volunteer to be on the committee no one wants to join.

As for the ritual itself on Holy Thursday, we don’t all have to participate in this (nor does the rite stipulate that we must), because it’s intended to be symbolic.  We could participate just as well by simply watching others have their feet washed.  But, if we’re wanting the congregation to partake, we could take this ritual one step further—if it’s a symbol for service, we could just as well wash hands as feet on Holy Thursday night and avoid the whole “foot” thing altogether….

I will admit, through a long series of circumstances (most of which have to do with me conveniently needing to serve as accompanist throughout the duration of the foot-washing), I have never had my feet washed.  But revealing this liturgically-implicating hang-up of mine is not the point of my story.

I’ve had a revelation about footwashing—which is likely obvious to souls more wise and less podophobic than my own.  Footwashing is not about doing something radical (touching someone else’s foot) becausBarefoot hikee you want to show service, or because you’re a nice person, or even because you love Jesus.  Jesus didn’t mess around with the abstract.  This symbol is real: he washed a foot because that’s exactly what he wanted us to do—love in the concrete.  You wash a foot because you love, and you love the specific person whose foot you are washing.  Not only would you wash that foot, but you would hold it, you would dry it with your hair, and you would kiss that very same foot.  This is, of course, why Jesus’ discourse on love directly follows the footwashing in John 13.

I would not have imagined it would be possible to love so much that you would not only wash, but kiss someone’s feet—until I held someone with tiny fingers and toes, and counted each one to be sure they were all there.

This little one’s feet are not dirty (usually—and if they are, we’re in big trouble), and she can’t even completely control how her chubby limbs kick and stretch.  But, when I’m with my little baby, I can’t help but cradle those tiny feet in my hand, and give them a kiss.  This is how much I love my daughter, that I would kiss what (in my mind) is untouchable, let alone un-kissable.  Yet my silly little way of loving is only a shadow of God’s love for us—we who are God’s own children, with our tiny hands and feet, flailing about, hardly knowing what we’re doing, attempting to do God’s work in the world.

So, once again, my way of looking at life and avoiding eye contact (or foot contact as the case may be) has been turned upside down by this mysterious little child.  The smallest, the least among us, it seems, are the ones who break down our barriers of fear, invite to act in love and not simply watch, and to walk humbly toward our God.


  1. View from the Pew
    Regarding: ” This symbol is real: he washed a foot because that’s exactly what he wanted us to do—love in the concrete. You wash a foot because you love, and you love the specific person whose foot you are washing. Not only would you wash that foot, but you would hold it, you would dry it with your hair, and you would kiss that very same foot. This is, of course, why Jesus’ discourse on love directly follows the footwashing in John 13.”
    – Amen!
    – Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (collectively, the men and women who followed Jesus) so that they would know in a concrete way how to be like him; in faith.

  2. Jesus likely knew well, even before Peter objected. He left one of his mandata for this: as I have done, so you also should do. Washing feet was no more intended to be symbolic than the Eucharist. It is possibly a Eucharistic miracle that sharing a common loaf and cup has lasted as long as it has in Christendom, given how squeamish we’ve been about other commands, Matthew 25:31ff, Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15, etc.. Of course, we know how some Christians, even those who claim the mantle of Roman Catholicity, have tried to suppress it.

  3. I actually wonder under which circumstances the Mandatum makes liturgical sense. It seems to be a reversion of hierarchies, and thus it appears to make sense in a hierarchical structure, e.g. an abbot washing the feet of the most junior monks, a bishop washing the feet of the most junior priests of his diocese, or maybe a parish priest washing the feet of the paupers of his parish, who are regularly cared for by the parishioners’ alms.

    However, washing the feet of random persons one will likely never meet again and has no responsibility for (and who may even be chosen not as individual members of Christ’s body but as ‘representatives’ of certain constituencies) or (as not uncommon in Germany) washing the feet of parish volunteers who feel unable to say ‘no’, may come over as hypocritical show rather than following Christ’s footsteps (and the parishioners will certainly note if a priest’s daily life, especially his dealings with parish staff and volunteers, will reflect the humility shown at the Mandatum).

    1. This comment is off topic. This post is about human relationships, vulnerability, openness, love. Why don’t you speak to that? The post isn’t about defending (or complaining about) the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

    2. This year Pope Francis will celebrate Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a prison. I doubt if any of your misgivings will bother him or his congregation. On the contrary I’m sure most of those present and many more besides will be edified.

    3. I actually think this comment is thoughtful, and is asking a deeper question about what the rite does and / or is intended to do. I welcome the chance to discuss this question. The context of the rite has changed, and this opens up new layers of interpretation, or perhaps a re-imagining in light of our present-day concerns about social relationships and responsibility.

      The reversal of hierarchies is something that anthropologists rightly discern in the history. But the dark side of that is that it reinforces the hierarchy. Some people refuse to participate in this ritual today because of that analysis: specifically, I know feminists who regard it as a hierarchy-reinforcing ritual and won’t participate.

      In the context of its more general use today however, and because of authoritative statements affirming a wider application of the rite, the mandatum has taken on a meaning of charity and service that is actually much broader. Specifically, those parishes which have everyone wash each other’s feet make no distinction of a class of those who wash and those who are washed. Is this a change? Yes. But is it out of keeping with the command of Jesus (“As I have done, you also should do”)? No, I don’t think so.

      1. That’s not really my experience. I don’t see what hierarchy has to do with it at all, unless one is chained to the notion of a priest washing twelve pairs of feet. The Lord’s mandatum is no more tied to hierarchy than the reception of Communion.

      2. I agree with Todd. To see the radical and prophetic action and ensuing command of Jesus through a hierarchical lense is an anachronism and an impoverishment.

  4. This is a worthwhile rumination on the foot washing in Holy Week. But any suggestion that hands might be washed instead brings to mind that the only one who ‘washed hands’ during the Passion Accounts is Pontius Pilate — and he did so as a sign of avoiding responsibility for his role in the events.

    1. Thanks for picking up on my allusion! I completely agree; it is odd to think that a cultural (or individual) aversion to feet, and a desire to be inclusive, would yield such a twisting of the ritual. And yet, handwashing was a practice that has been adopted by some Catholic parishes as a solution for more pastorally tapping into the ritual and inviting more to participate!

    2. You know, in theory I agree with all this. But in practice, I have to admit that I once served at a parish where they washed the hands of the people, and I have never seen a footwashing compare to the profound response this ritual received among the parishioners. I really think it is an issue of inculturation. Footwashing is preferable for all the reasons mentioned, but you’ve got to admit it is culturally difficult. This is a reality. The parishioners at this place I mentioned were about a thousand percent more engaged and moved by a ritual that they could participate in without it embarrassing the heck out of them. In the cultural world of Jesus people washed each other’s feet. It was a manual service, and body service that was part of their culture. What he did with it had a context. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, but I am not in a hurry to condemn those who have tried to inculturate this ritual — or to assume this is a betrayal.

      1. On Holy Thursday, our parish will be doing a washing of hands rather than washing feet. Probably two-thirds of those at this Mass will be persons who are age 60 or older, many of whom would choose not to participate in a footwashing, but who enthusiastically join in a ritual handwashing.

        When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was demonstrating how they should serve. When we wash hands, we are also saying something about how we are called to serve. St. Teresa of Ávila famously said:

        “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks his compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”

        Many people have adapted this in sermon and in song, e.g., “The Eyes and Hands of Christ” by Tom Kendzia.

        We will also use our hands in another way, later in Mass, when we receive communion. A recent post, “Receiving in the Hand: A Meditation” by Timothy Brunk, noted:

        “When I regarded others as they received, I wondered what their hands had done in service of another’s well-being by changing soiled diapers, by holding the hand of one who is frightened, etc. I wondered about those who lose limbs and lives in service of others while my hand is well on the way to a full recovery.

        “In however small or haltingly a way, my hands consecrate the world to God. My / our hands also engage in desecration when I / we choose sin. For that, I / we need healing. And of course, the point of the consecration of the bread at Mass is not merely that members of the assembly may hold the Lord in their hands. Yet when the Lord is in their hands, there is an encounter worth pondering.”

        So I find myself wondering about my hands. Are they the hands of Christ? Are they healing or hurting, soothing or striking? Are they worthy (Lord, I am not worthy) for God to “make of our hands a throne”? It seems that I really need to have my hands washed, cleansed, baptized, so that…

      2. Jeff

        FWIW, it appears that the actual source of “Christ has no body now but yours” is anonymous (like the so-called “Prayer of St Francis” and the “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words” aphorism and the Rosary of St Dominic and…). It happens.

      3. Surely the whole point is to “embarrass the heck out of them” ? It certainly embarrassed the heck out of Peter, and not only because someone he revered was assuming the role of a servant. Washing hands instead of feet is an easy option, a cop-out. We can do this without being radically engaged in the action of service.

        I speak as someone who for many years avoided situations where my feet might be washed. The last thing I wanted to do was expose these unattractive parts of my body to the tender mercies of someone I didn’t know that well or even at all. It’s fairly easy to avoid when you are pastoral musician…

        But when I was finally cornered — not in a Holy Thursday context, but in a paraliturgy — and experienced the loving care with which someone whom I scarcely knew washed my feet, I was touched and changed in a way that I never expected to be. . I have still not yet washed someone else’s feet, except in a “hospital” context: another hurdle for me to overcome which will require me to forget myself and focus totally on the other person.

        I remember when I first heard a speaker say that Jesus could easily have said, after washing his disciples’ feet, “Do this in memory of me” and left it at that. No bread and wine, no body and blood, no Communion. Just giving yourself totally to another in a moment of service. Our liturgical and ecclesial history would have been very different as a result.

      4. To Paul Inwood,

        I see what you are saying, but no, I don’t think the point is to embarrass. If so, it would have been cruel sport to practice it on the poor (as was done historically) or to do it to people today.

        The point is to reverse our expectations of power.

      5. Rita,

        Perhaps “embarrass” is the wrong word. But I am quite sure that the action needs to discomfort us, both the washer and the washee, otherwise there’s little point in doing it.

    3. I would point that (Pilate washing his hands) out to a priest friend of mine who washed hands instead of feet, but he never made any change in his practice.

  5. I am well aware too that oft times in monasteries the ‘traditional welcome’ by the Abbot or Abbess or Guestmaster to the Guest as Christ is ‘foot washing’ (an extension of the “Mandatum” of Holy Thursday) but nowadays, if done at all, it is often a ‘ritual washing of the guest’s hands’. So there is precedent for the ‘modern comfort zone’ even there. However, it really becomes a very different ‘sort’ of service than that originally called for.

    1. I am actually wondering – and I mean really wondering – if this footwashing was an extension of the Mandatum, or if the Mandatum is merely a special cases of a once common monastic habit – and even more so, since the Mandatum, performed by clergy in liturgical vestments but normally not in the main body of a church, was only a special cases of the footwashings done by princes on Maundy Thursday (what still lives on vestigially today in the English Royal Maundy).

  6. The reference to the habit of ‘washing hands and feet as part of the ritual of receiving a Guest as the Christ’ is in the Rule of St. Benedict chapter 53:12-13. As with many other things in that Rule, it is a sort of handbook for late Classical Roman family life as lived by Christians. After all, in at least some general sense, it is also a style of life that would/could be worthwhile in many places today too.

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