The washing of feet has to be for many people the strangest of customs within the Christian church.

There are other customs such as our use of liturgical colors, incense, vestments, the bowing, kneeling or standing – all customs that people might not fully understand but they do not seem all that strange, nor do they make people uncomfortable.

Foot washing is different. Some church don’t do it at all – other are fanatical about it. Some people look forward to it and others would rather avoid it altogether.

In my previous congregation, some asked if it were “mandatory.” I thought that was interesting given the fact that Maundy Thursday and “mandatory” both stem from the Latin word “Mandatum” –  “Command,” and refers to Christ’s command to “love one another.”

We know that for us foot washing is not mandatory, but rather a beautiful expression of servanthood.

For the disciples however it was mandatory that Jesus – their leader and teacher was their feet in order to show them what true humility and “leader-servitude” is all about. In many ways it was an antidote to James and John’s jockeying for special position in “the Kingdom” that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

By washing the feet of His Disciples Jesus showed that while He was their master, He like they, were equal to one another in love and service.

In doing so, Jesus teaches us the same thing – that we are all equal to one another in love and service. Jesus never relinquished his authority and he also gave Peter great authority, but in love and service, then as now, all were and are to be equal.

This is the essence of Maundy Thursday and Christ’s new commandment to his disciples and to us “To Love One Another.”

Back to this whole business about washing feet. Why is it so anxiety producing? Why is it so strange? There are several reason:

  • Unlike Communion there is an intimacy that most people fear.
  • For some they cannot envision a person with authority doing such a thing – though I think this is probably the most minor objection
  • Mostly it is a matter of embarrassment. People think their feet are ugly, smelly, dirty – they have things like callouses and nasty nails and whatever else.

Is the perception of our feet not like the world?

Are we not called to serve an “ugly, smelly, dirty world? Are we not called to serve a world of imperfection, that is often not beautiful, full of people who do things that are often not so beautiful? Are we not called to bring the water of love to this world so that this water might wash it clean by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Our Lord and Savior certainly knew something about symbolism and teaching. He surely did. For in this simple act he taught us about love, equality, servant-hood and the mission to which we as Christians are called and the overarching thing he taught us is humility.

Baptism, anointing, blessing – all of these things can be done standing but foot washing must be done on your knees before the person you wash. It requires the washer to take the position of a servant, of a slave, the position of service that St. Paul repeatedly calls us to.

In a time when a person was either a servant or a master Jesus taught His disciples a new way – a way to serve with humility and yet with dignity found in that service. The act of foot washing continues to teach us His message yet today.