From ancient times, in the land of the Bible, it was not uncommon for a guest to have his feet washed when he entered someone’s home. A traveler, wearing sandals or walking barefoot along the dusty roads in the hot, arid climate of the Middle East, would welcome this gesture of hospitality. Sometimes a host would provide water for a servant to wash his guests’ feet, as Abraham did for the three men who visited him at Mamre (Gen 18:4; cf. also Gen 19:2). Or, the host would wash the visitors’ feet, as did Abigail welcoming the servants of David (1 Sam 25:41). In either case, the travel-worn wayfarer would gladly receive this kind gesture of courtesy.
On the night before he died, when Jesus washed the feet of his apostles during his last supper with them, he broke with tradition. In every Passover meal, there was a ritual of hand washing. After the first cup of wine, the head of the house would wash his hands alone. The second time, before the actual meal, all present would wash their hands. Jesus changed the expected rite.
While the apostles were arguing about who was the greatest, who deserved the most honor, Jesus rose from the table. The apostles watched. Jesus was about to wash his hands alone as head of the household. This act symbolically separated him from the others and consecrated him to lead them. But Jesus changed the ritual.
Instead of washing his hands, he took a basin and stooped to wash the feet of his followers. Jesus, who had already divested himself of his divine dignity in the Incarnation, lowered himself to the position of the servant, washing his own disciples’ feet. After washing their feet, Jesus instructed them: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15).
For many centuries, the Church literally followed Jesus’ example. However, in the past, the washing of the feet was never part of the celebration of the Eucharist. Tertullian in the 3rd century, the Council of Elvira in the 4th century and Augustine in the 5th century, all mention the washing of the feet. But, they do not connect it with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In his rule, St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism, advised his monks to wash the feet of their guests. He told them, “the Abbot himself pours water over their hands, the Abbot and all the brethren together wash the feet of the guests” (Regula, LIII). St. Bernard reports that, at Cluny, it was customary to wash the feet of the poor on the chief festivals of the year.
In the 12th and 13th centuries in Rome, there were two washings of feet on Holy Thursday. The pope first washed the feet of 12 subdeacons when Mass ended. Later, after taking his meal, he washed the feet of 13 poor men. Even the monarchs of Europe practiced the ritual washing of feet of the poor to demonstrate their humility and charity. James the Second was the last English king to do so in the 18th century. Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian was the last of the Hapsburgs to do so in the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1955, Pope Pius XII reformed the liturgy and included the washing of the feet as an optional ritual within the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. In this context, it has come to be understood as a vivid reminder of Jesus’ washing the feet of the Twelve Apostles, the Church’s first priests. And, for this reason, the tradition until only recently was to have only men as part of this ceremony.
Undoubtedly, there is a rich symbolism in Jesus’ washing the feet of the first priests. He wants his priests in every age to be examples of humble service and charity to all. Understanding the profound meaning of Jesus’ action at the Last Supper, Pope Francis has now returned to the ancient practice of washing the feet of the poor, the needy and the marginalized. His dramatic action makes us see what the Eucharist is truly about.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the Church the gift of the Eucharist that makes present, in an unbloody manner, the sacrifice of the Cross. Thus, the Eucharist is the gift of love. The Eucharist is sacramentum caritatis. In every Eucharist, Jesus cleanses us of sin that clings to our souls as dust to the feet of the wayfarer. In every Eucharist, Jesus fills us with the love of God and sends us back into the world to bring God’s love to the poor. Thus, in returning to the ancient tradition of washing the feet of the poor, Pope Francis has challenged us to translate our sharing in the Lord’s Supper into deeds of charity in our daily life. He is reminding us that, as Jesus gave himself for all, so must we.