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

Catholic parish church of St. Matthäus in Alfter, relief at the high altar: Jesus washes his disciples' feet.

By David Mills Published on April 1, 2021

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.

A lot of churches do this. It’s 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. It looks fake.

I know the reason we do it. 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. As I say, it feels hokey.

The Sacramentum Christi

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 it a “sacramentum Christi.” That means the mystery of Christ as He comes to us. It’s a way of saying “This is who Jesus is.”

Jesus’s washing the Apostles’ feet points to the whole mystery of Christ, Benedict says. It points to “his service of salvation, his descent even to the cross, his love to the end.” 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? 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 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 or working or helping someone who needs help; pushing in front of someone in a line; saying snarky things about someone behind his back; thinking lustful or covetous or greedy thoughts.

Notice the symbolism. We’re not dirty all over, as if we’d been working in a mine. We’ve just got our feet dirty. We may not have killed anyone, but we still hurt someone else, maybe a lot of people in little ways. It all adds up, the way dirt covers more and more of our feet as we walk through the mud, and soon starts splashing onto the rest of us.

We can’t say, “Oh, it’s just my feet.” Dirty is dirty. And dirty gets dirtier. We must confess those everyday 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. Jesus 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.

In other words, Jesus gives us the chance not just to clean up ourselves. He wants us to help our brothers and sisters clean up. We can’t confess their sins for them. But we can show them a little bit of how Jesus loves them by loving them ourselves. Forgiving someone is love at its most practical. Being forgiven can change someone’s life. It can send them to the One who is Forgiveness. 

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. The ceremony will always feel a little hokey to me.

But less and less so, I hope, as I learn the lesson better. Especially to forgive those who’ve trespassed against me, as the Lord’s Prayer says, as I hope they forgive me. Which, to be honest, is probably easier than actually washing their feet.


For more insights into Holy Week

For Palm Sunday and Holy Week
John Zmirak’s How Can We Mark Palm Sunday When it Feels Like Holy Saturday?
Deacon Keith Fournier’s Holy Week: Now It Begins, Now It All Begins
Jennifer Hartline’s Has God Finally Met His Match?

For Maundy Thursday
David Mills’s Why Jesus Washed the Apostles’ Feet, and Why We Do It Too

For Good Friday
John Zmirak’s Have a Bleak and Blessed Good Friday and I Am Barabbas. And So Are You
David Mills’s We’re Pilate, But We Should Be the Jews
Tom Gilson’s Good Friday: Its Message for Christian Culture Warriors

For Holy Saturday:
John Zmirak’s Living in Limbo
Michael Brown’s Why Russian Jews Dreaded Easter Weekend

For Easter day
James Robison’s The Triumph of Easter
John Zmirak’s Want to Really Experience Easter? Visit a Graveyard and Listen to Verdi
David Mills’s Did Jesus Rise? The Extreme Apostle Says Yes, the More Extreme Atheist Says No and He Walked Her Down the Aisle in Baby Steps
Tom Gilson’s Purpose, Justice, Hope: How the Resurrection Lets Life Make Sense


David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes the monthly “Last Things” column for the New Oxford Review. He is finishing a book on death and dying to be published by Sophia Institute Press.

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