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'I have set you an example' - why clergy wash feet on Maundy Thursday

Thursday 28th March 2013

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus showed radical humility by washing his disciple’s feet. Like Christian clergy around the world, Archbishop Justin will wash the feet of 12 congregation members at Canterbury Cathedral tonight, in a ritual which reminds us that loving Christ means serving others.

'The Washing of the Feet' by Ghislaine Howard (2004), Collection: Oxford Brookes University.The Washing of the Feet by Ghislaine Howard (2004), Collection: Oxford Brookes University.

‘After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’
(John 13:12-15)

When clergy wash their congregants’ feet on Maundy Thursday night, they are following the example of Christ. St John's Gospel records that, during the Last Supper, Christ washed his disciple’s feet – and told them they must do this for each other. With this act he presented a powerful challenge to his disciples' notions of hierachy, and an eternal example of the dignity inherent in humbly serving others.

On Maundy Thursday, when Christians remember the Last Supper, many churches repeat this ritual, with priests, bishops and archbishops alike kneeling to wash the feet of congregation members.

During a sung Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop will wash and dry the feet of 12 congregation members, with assistance from the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd Robert Willis.

The Washing of Feet is part of a sequence of services throughout Holy Week and Easter in which Christians share in Christ’s own journey, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Maundy Thursday (from mandatum, ‘commandment’) is not just about humble Christian service as expressed through Christ washing his disciple’s feet. It also celebrates the institution of the Eucharist, and the perfection of Christ’s loving obedience to God through the agony of Gethsemane, where he prayed with his disciples on the night before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion.

Last week on Palm Sunday, Archbishop Justin reflected on the challenge of “allowing ourselves to be served” which foot washing presents us with.
“I always felt very uncomfortable having my feet washed,” he said during an interview on BBC's Songs of Praise. “We always did it in different churches I’ve been with. Allowing ourselves to be served – as the disciples had to allow Jesus to serve them – is a very uncomfortable feeling. We like transactions: not that gratuitous giving that Jesus shows.”

New popularity

Revd Canon Jonathan Goodall, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Ecumenical Secretary, explains that the liturgical movement over the past 150 years - which has sought to restore active participation in liturgy and revive early church traditions within modern Christian worship - has given foot washing fresh prominence in many Christian demoninations.

“Because of its scriptural roots, in the 20th century foot washing became a very popular presentation of Jesus’ radical humility and service in anticipation of his trial and crucifixion,” he says.

The powerful symbolism of foot washing is readily understood in cultures around the world, he adds: “It’s an indisputable sign of the humility of Christ and his expectation of service among us.”
As Archbishop Justin prepares to wash feet in Canterbury tonight, Pope Francis will be washing the feet of prisoners in a youth detention centre near Rome. For the first time in living memory, the afternoon mass on Holy Thursday will be held in neither the Vatican or a Rome basilica, the Vatican said in a statement.

In a homily, the Pope urged priests to engage more with parishioners, saying: "It is not in soul-searching... that we encounter the Lord."


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