'A new command I give you': How foot-washing can save the world

An artist's re-imagining of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.Tarazona/ Flickr

In Christian tradition, today recalls the story of Jesus stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. To wash another's dirty feet was a radical act of service then, and the Church has imitated it to this day. Through it, we embody Christ's humility, forgetting ourselves and showing the world what true love does.

The story is told in John's Gospel, where it tells us that Jesus loved his disciples 'to the end' (John 13:1). Peter refuses to let his master wash his feet, but Jesus insists: 'Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.'

He later explains: '"Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them."You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am.Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet.I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them"' (John 13: 12-17).

The practice of foot-washing was not invented by Jesus; we see it in the Old Testament and in other ancient cultures. Jesus imbued it with special meaning though: he was God incarnate, condescending to serve his own followers. He foreshadowed an even deeper humility to come: hours later he would be crucified, this too in self-giving service of the world. In calling his followers to embody this, Jesus showed that true love could be illustrated by the washing of feet, but could end up costing far more.

Through foot-washing, the Church could remember Christ's humility and begin to embody it too. Emphasising his call, Jesus later told the disciples: 'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another' (John 13:34). 

Pope Francis washing feet in a young offenders institution in 2013.Reuters

The Church has continued the tradition. At this time of year in various traditions, priests stoop to serve their parishioners. In the Roman Catholic Church, the rite follows the reading from John 13 during the Holy Thursday Mass.

Pope Francis has famously developed the tradition. While some have said that only ministers, or at least men should be the subjects of the priestly foot-washing, Francis has made a point of serving women too.

He has also washed the feet of prisoners, refugees and those from non-Christian religions.

Some might dismiss it as a stunt. Others say the fact that the highest-ranking cleric of the world's largest Church can so freely, publicly condescend, not thinking himself above those regarded by others as outcasts, is a testament to his Christian humility.

The idea of washing someone's feet certainly makes me personally uncomfortable. Even if we're not wandering with only sandals through the dusty Middle-East like the disciples did, feet are just weird. It's a deeply intimate, intense practice, and like Peter, when someone insists it's done for us, we want to shrug them off and insist they don't.

But Jesus persisted. To have a part in Jesus' life, to be a true follower, Jesus told Peter that he had to allow himself to be served. To let go of his pride and self-determination. To reject Christ's service would be to reject God.

Then, once Peter has been blessed, he can go and bless others, serving as Jesus did. On Maundy Thursday we remember that the Christian life is both these things: to give, but also to receive. To love sacrificially, but also to know sacrificial love.

This ancient practice, renewed as an imitation of Christ, is one the Church must hold onto. It offers hope to a world still ruled by social class and expectations. When Jesus knelt to serve his friends, he reminded them of the promises of the Kingdom of God: the first becoming last, the lowly lifted and the mighty brought down. No one is unworthy of God's grace, and no one doesn't need it.

To descend like Christ did may look odd and unsettling in today's comfortable culture. In that act though, the world glimpses true humility – and therein the face of God.

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