Why Jesus Washed the Apostles’ Feet, and Why We Do It Too

By David Mills Published on April 13, 2017

My wife has nice feet. Mine aren’t. I think of this every Holy Thursday. Our pastor washes the feet of twelve people, in imitation of Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet at the start of the Last Supper, and I always think “I’m glad I’m not up there.” Vain, I admit.

While I’m being honest, the washing always seems to me a little hokey. It feels to me more like theatre than worship. Bad theatre. Twelve people sit on chairs at the front of the church, most of them with their pantlegs rolled up, holding their shoes and socks in their hands. It doesn’t look real.

I know the reason we do it on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday. But the symbol is so far away from anything we do in our culture, it feels artificial to me. Who washes a guest’s feet? How does this apply in downtown Phoenix or the suburbs of Boston, or the corn fields of western Nebraska? We don’t do anything like that. It feels hokey.

The Sacramentum Christi

It may feel hokey, but it isn’t hokey. Like so many things in the Christian life, we learn backwards: first obedience, then understanding. In this case: first obedience, then understanding, then being able to enter into the symbol and feel its power.

Pope Benedict can help with this. The pope gives the Holy Thursday homily every year and Benedict talked about the washing in his homily in 2008. He called the washing a “sacramentum Christi.” That means the mystery of Christ as he comes to us.

Jesus’s washing the Apostles’ feet points to “the sacramentum Christi in its entirety: his service of salvation, his descent even to the cross, his love to the end, which purifies us and makes us capable of God.” His being a servant to his friends in that way — even to Judas, who he knows will betray him — points to the even greater sacrifice he would make for us the next day. He washed his disciples’ feet as a sign that he would die for them so he could wash their souls.

What does this mean for us? Lots, of course, but in this homily Benedict offers two lessons.

First, he says, it tells us to confess our sins. “We need the ‘washing of the feet,’ the washing of our everyday sins, and for this we need the confession of sins.” He points us to John’s first letter: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”

Notice he says “everyday sins.” He means the little sins we commit: snapping at the children, watching a TV show when we should be praying, pushing in front of someone in a line, saying snarky things about someone behind his back, thinking lustful or covetous or greedy thoughts. We may not have killed anyone, but we’ve gotten ourselves dirty, like having dirty feet. We must confuse those sins to God and ask him to clean us up.

The Gift to Others

This points us to something else, Benedict says. Washing others’ feet is a gift to them. He says this: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Not literally, in our culture. (For which I’m very glad.) Benedict explains: “We must wash each other’s feet in the daily mutual service of love. But we must also wash our feet in the sense of constantly forgiving one another.” Because, he says,

The debt that the Lord has forgiven us is always infinitely greater than all of the debts that others could owe to us (cf. Mt. 18:21-35). It is to this that Holy Thursday exhorts us: not to allow rancor toward others to become, in its depths, a poisoning of the soul. It exhorts us to constantly purify our memory, forgiving one another from the heart, washing each other’s feet, thus being able to join together in the banquet of God.

The Pastor Up Front

I will never, not in a million years, volunteer to be one of the twelve people sitting up front with their pantlegs rolled up having their feet washed. I suspect the ceremony will always feel a little hokey to me.

But less so now that I’ve read Benedict’s explanation. And less so, I hope, as God teaches me how better to confess my sins and love others more sacrificially. Especially by forgiving them, as I hope they forgive me. Which, to be honest, is probably easier than actually washing their feet.


Note: This has been revised a little since posting, partly because the writer went to worship and experienced the ceremony again, and didn’t feel it was quite so hokey as it had been in the past.


Holy Week at The Stream

For Palm Sunday: Deacon Keith Fournier’s Holy Week: Now It Begins, Now It All Begins
For Holy Week: Jennifer Hartline’s Has God Finally Met His Match?
For Holy Week: David Limbaugh’s Good News and the Gospels
For Maundy Thursday: David Mills’sWhy Jesus Washed the Apostles’ Feet, and Why We Do It Too
For Good Friday: John Zmirak’s Have a Bleak and Blessed Good Friday
For Easter day: Esther O’Reilly’s Not Without Witness: An Easter Reflection
For Easter day: David Mills’s Did Jesus Rise? The Extreme Apostle Says Yes, the More Extreme Atheist Says No

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