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The Washing of Feet on Maundy Thursday

by Ernest Graf, O.S.B.

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  • Description:
    This article on the practice of washing the feet of twelve men on Holy Thursday discusses the origin of the practice, its observance in early centuries, what St. Augustine tells us of the practice, when it was introduced into the Liturgy, and the significance of the ceremony.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 347-351
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph F. Wagner, Inc. Publishers, February 1945

In the Canon of the Mass of Maundy Thursday Holy Church bestows upon that solemn day the epithet of "most holy" (sacratissimum diem). The appellation is fully justified on more than one heading. Historically, the day recalls to mind the opening of the Passion and some of its most moving episodes, such as the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal, the outrages before the Sanhedrim, and so forth. Liturgically, the day is wrapped in an aura of mystery and holiness by reason of the ancient and imposing rites which are peculiar to it. Some of these rites may be seen and followed by the faithful in any church; others— and they are the more impressive ones —are carried out only in cathedrals or in the churches of some of the Religious Orders. Chief, among these is the blessing of the oils, which was described in this REVIEW on another occasion.1

There is yet another solemn rite which is not often witnessed, but which, for all that, should not be forgotten or allowed to go unnoticed. I mean the solemn washing of the feet of twelve men—which is carried out in cathedrals and monastic churches.

This very significant rite is of very great antiquity; in fact, it is contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Christian Liturgy, though we have no documents to show its literal and material observance during the earliest centuries. The Last Supper was the First Mass. From that day onwards the Apostles never ceased to carry out the command of the Master: "Do this in memory of Me." It is equally certain that they make a point of not deviating from the simple but adequate outward ritual used by the Divine Priest according to the order of Melchisedech. Now, before Our Lord instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice (thus showing forth His death on the cross even before Calvary, even as every Mass does since that bloody immolation), He washed the feet of the Apostles. He did so, in fact, with a good deal of ceremony and, above all, with a most significant purpose. The act was really part, even though it was but a preliminary, of the great Eucharistic function. As soon as He had accomplished this singular act of humility, He commanded His disciples to do to one another what He had done to them: "Know you what I have done to you? You call Me Master and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If then I, being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet, for I have given you an example that, as I have done to you, so you do also" (John, xiii. 13 sqq.). The whole context seems to show beyond question that Our Lord had a very high and special purpose in view when He knelt at the feet of His disciples to perform so amazing an act of condescension. To begin with, the natural moment for washing the feet would have been on entering the house—or, at any rate, before the meal. Yet, Christ rose from the couch on which He lay at the end of the Supper. Evidently He wished to give them an extraordinary token of His love for them, but His act also had what may be called a sacramental purpose. The legal repast was over, but He had prepared yet another feast for them; Divine Wisdom "hath slain her victim, mingled her wine, and set forth her table" (Prov., ix. 2). He was about to bid them "eat My bread and drink the wine which I have mingled for you" (ibid., 5). They must be pure from the least stain who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the spotless Lamb of God. St. Ambrose calls the washing of feet a sacrament, for the cleansing of the remains of original sin; and St. Bernard, speaking of it in similar terms, says that it remits venial sins. This is perfectly sound theology, for, when carried out in the dispositions demanded by Christ and as a solemn ceremony of the Church, the function becomes a sacramental—a minor sacrament, so to speak, and as such, acts as an efficacious cause of grace whereby venial sin is naturally and necessarily wiped away. In any case, from the days of Origen, commentators have seen in the act of Our Lord a symbol of purity and purification, and one of the moderns puts it thus: " . . . by His action Christ both merits and grants to them perfect purity" (ut efficiantur prorsus mundi Christus hac sua actione iis meretur et confert, Knabenbauer, "In Joan.," p. 405).

From this injunction, in point of fact, the ceremony derives its liturgical name, Mandatum, though, strictly speaking, the word occurs in another context—John, xiii. 34, when Christ says: "Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem, sicut dilexi vos." Charity is a formal command, binding on all men and for all time. That we wash another's feet is a mark of charity, but as this virtue may be exercised in countless ways, there is no binding obligation to do so by a physical washing of our brethren's feet.

Origin of the Practice

The practice of washing the feet of strangers or guests is of very great antiquity. It is hardly necessary to state that it did not originate in our northern countries. An observance of this kind could only begin in a country or countries where men are not shod and stockinged as we are, and where dust rather than mud is more commonly encountered.

In the East, the place of its birth, poor people go barefoot, and others are content to strap on to their feet sandals that do no more than protect the soles of the feet. Our Lord and His Apostles were not shod otherwise. If this is borne in mind, it becomes plain that the feet had to be washed frequently; moreover, in a hot, waterless country facilities for so necessary and so refreshing a performance were not common. Hence, it was a natural and spontaneous gesture to offer a basin of water to a travel-stained wayfarer to whom one extended the hospitality of one's house. The height of courtesy and hospitality was for the host himself to pour water over the feet of his guest.. Something akin to this obtains today in hot countries. When a visitor is received, a servant brushes off the dust from his shoes or the guest is given a feather brush with which to wipe off the thick white dust which is so quickly gathered by the pedestrian.

Holy Scripture furnishes us with not a few most picturesque examples of the kindly action under discussion. One day, whilst Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the very heat of the day, he beheld three wayfarers. As soon as he saw them, moved by the spirit of truly Oriental hospitality, he ran towards them, begging them to accept his hospitality: "Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant: but I will fetch a little water and wash ye your feet and rest ye under the tree . . . " (Gen., xviii. I sqq.).

In like manner, when "two angels came to Sodom in the evening, Lot was sitting in the gate of the city. And seeing them he rose up and went to meet them and worshipped prostrate to the ground, and said: 'I beseech you, my lords, turn into the house of your servant and lodge there: wash your feet, and in the morning you shall go on your way . . . ' " (Gen., xix. 1, 2). When David's servants came to Abigail to inform her that they had been commanded by their master to take her to him for a wife, "she arose and bowed herself down with her face to the earth and said: 'Behold, let thy servant be a handmaid, to wash the feet of the servants of my lord' " (I Kings, xxv. 40, 41).

Not to offer water to a visitor was a marked sign of neglect or rudeness. Our Lord complained of it to a man who had invited Him to dinner: "I entered into thy house and thou gavest Me no water for My feet; but she [the Magdalen] with tears hath washed my feet and with her hairs hath wiped them ... " (Luke, vii. 44).

St. Paul, when enumerating the qualities required in those widows who wished to have their widowhood formally consecrated by the Church, mentions this practice of charity: "Let a widow be chosen . . . having testimony for her good works . . . if she have washed the saints' feet. . . " (1 Tim., v. 9, 10).

Observance of Practice in Early Centuries

The practice became specially common in monasteries—those hostelries of God's poor in the ages of faith; so much so that the part of the monastic buildings set apart for their entertainment came to be called simply the Mandatum (cfr. Du Cange, s. v. Mandatum).

That great gentleman of the fifth-sixth century who embodies in his glorious person all the courtesy of Rome's ancient aristocracy and the delicacy of Christian charity, St. Benedict, writing of the reception of guests, lays down a code which shows him to be truly in the line direct of the Patriarchs of old: "All strangers are to be received as Christ would be received . The kiss of peace is exchanged; the Abbot himself pours water over their hands, the Abbot and all the brethren together wash the feet of the guests (pedes hospitibus omnibus tam Abbas, quam cuncta congregatio lavet), and after the washing they are to ask: Suscepimus, Deus, misericordiam tuam, in medio templi tui" (Regula, LIII). One of the duties of the cooks and servers at table—offices from which no one was to be exempted—was to wash the feet of all the brethren at the conclusion of their week's term of service. St. Bernard says that at Cluny it was customary to wash the feet of the poor on the chief festivals of the year.

At Milan, in Northern Africa, in Gaul and in Spain, the custom obtained of washing the feet of the candidates for Baptism. Rome never adopted the practice, the reason possibly being that this was a thing belonging to the practice of hospitality rather than to the baptismal rite. Another explanation, and perhaps the true one, was the great number of catechumens to be baptized on Holy Saturday.

St. Augustine on the Washing of Feet

St. Augustine tells us that the practice was rejected by many for fear it should be held to be part of the Sacrament. For that reason there was in some places a washing of the feet of the newly baptized on the third or eighth day after the reception of the Sacrament. Even in Spain the Council of Elvira, cap. 48, showed itself unfavorable to the observance.

St. Augustine, in a letter to Januarius, speaks of the washing of the feet: "As to the feet-washing, since the Lord recommended this, . . . the question has arisen at what time it is best, by literal performance of this work, to give public instruction in the important duty which it illustrates, and this time [of Lent] was suggested in order that the lesson taught by it might make a deeper and more serious impression. Many, however, have not accepted this as a custom, . . . and some have denied it any place among our ceremonies" (Ep. lv, 18). In another letter to the same correspondent he speaks of another washing [on Maundy Thursday], but one that had no immediate religious significance: "If you ask me whence originated the custom of using the bath on that day [Maundy Thursday], nothing occurs to me, when I think of it, as more likely than that it was to avoid the offense to decency which must have been given at the baptismal font if the bodies of those to whom that rite was to be administered were not washed on some preceding day from the uncleanness consequent upon their strict abstinence from ablutions during Lent; and that this particular day was chosen for the purpose because of its being the anniversary of the institution of the Supper" (Ep. liv, 7).

Practice introduced into the Liturgy

The touching rite of Maundy Thursday viewed as a distinctive part of the Liturgy of the day is, therefore, not of the highest antiquity. The Council of Toledo held in 694 (Canon III) speaks as follows: "Since Our Lord has not disdained to wash the feet of His disciples, why should we refuse to emulate the example He gives us? It now happens that, partly from slackness, partly from custom, in sundry churches the priests no longer wash the feet of the brethren on Maundy Thursday. .." (Mansi, Vol. XII, col. 97). The Council then threatens with excommunication such bishops and priests who refuse to follow Our Lord's example by washing the feet of their subjects.

St. Isidore (De eccl. off., 1, 28) makes no mention of the Mandatum; on the other hand, he speaks of a rite which, it seems fairly safe to say, is no more than a variation of the washing of feet. "Inasmuch as Our Lord on this day washed the feet of His disciples," says the Spanish Doctor, "for that reason, on that same day, the altars, the walls and pavement of churches are washed and the vessels consecrated to the divine worship are purified."

The Ordines Romani (if the twelfth and thirteenth centuries show the ceremony in use at Rome, where in fact there were two washings of feet. The Pope in person first washed the feet of twelve subdeacons at the end of the Mass of the day, and, after the repast, he and his whole court washed the feet of thirteen poor men. The latter ceremony alone survives to-day.

Significance of the Ceremony

The meaning of the ceremony is well explained by the words formerly spoken by the priest during the rite:

"Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ washed the feet of His Apostles. I wash thy feet in order that thou mayst do in like manner to guests and strangers who come to thee. If thou do this, thou shalt have life everlasting, world without end" (Missale Gallic, vet., cfr. Muratori, 742).

The ceremony is an integral part of the ritual of Maundy Thursday, and should not be omitted wherever the day is observed with full liturgical splendor. The ritual is simple, but varies somewhat according to different countries.

The bishop, or celebrant, is vested in a purple cope, assisted by a deacon and subdeacon in white dalmatics. The deacon begins by singing the Gospel of the Mass (John, xiii. 1—15), which contains an account of Our Lord's washing of the Apostles' feet. The celebrant then puts off the cope and a white towel is tied round his waist. Kneeling in turn before each of the "apostles," he washes the feet (or the right foot) with water poured out by the deacon, wipes the foot with a towel and kisses it. When he has washed the feet of all, he washes his hands, resumes the cope, and chants the beautiful prayer in which he prays that the Lord God Himself would help him worthily to imitate His own example according as He commanded, to the end that, even as by this ceremony external and purely material stains are washed away, so the sins that are within may be blotted out from the souls of all. These words sufficiently explain the twofold purpose of the rite: on the one hand, we obey Our Lord's injunction to do to one another what He first did to His Apostles, and secondly, the rite is no mere imitative gesture devoid of spiritual virtue, for no rite of the Church is ever barren; on the contrary, it is a sacramental, endowed with spiritual energy for the cleansing of the soul from such lighter sins as are symbolized by the dust that clings to the feet of a wayfarer.

Endnotes

1 March and April, 1933.

© Homiletic & Pastoral Review 1945

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